Aaron Chambers of Cache Valley Electric installed a new traffic beacon at the Main Street and Uranium Avenue intersection on Thursday, Aug. 18. [Photo by Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

When drivers zipped down Main Street last week, they may have noticed some unexpected – yet welcome – sights: new traffic signals at two of Moab’s most problematic intersections.

Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) project contractor Cache Valley Electric of Logan installed a new traffic light at the intersection with 200 South, as well as a High-intensity Activated Crosswalk (HAWK) beacon at the Uranium Avenue crossing. Both devices replace two widely criticized flashing yellow beacons that a department contractor installed just over two years ago, to the consternation of many pedestrians and drivers.

Moab City Council member Rani Derasary said that city officials have been in talks with UDOT for months, and always hoped that the new signals would be in place by late summer.

“It’s nice to see that it kept to that calendar,” she said.

In the case of the new HAWK beacon, it went in not just months – but years – ahead of schedule. In March, traffic engineers told the Moab City Council that UDOT might install the Uranium Avenue beacon at some point in the next five to 10 years.

“I don’t think we knew then that we’d be lucky enough to get them now,” Derasary said.

Up until recently, Derasary has been avoiding trips down Main Street whenever she can, even though she lives close to downtown. But she wasted little time in checking out the new devices.

“I went out and used them, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool. I can actually cross the street,’” she said.

Past traffic engineering studies found that a new stoplight at the 200 South intersection was not warranted. But as more and more visitors come to Moab each year, recent traffic counts exceeded UDOT’s earlier projections, and support for the project gained momentum.

Even so, UDOT Region 4 Communications Manager Kevin Kitchen said that traffic engineers had to weigh the effects that a new signal will have on traffic flows along the busy route, also known as U.S. Highway 191.

“As we looked at the entire length of Main Street and the corridor as a whole, we knew that there would have to be some coordination,” Kitchen said. “It’s a science.”

Now that the new stoplight is in place, Kitchen said there’s a possibility that it could interrupt those traffic flows during certain times of the year.

“There probably will be some trade-offs with traffic,” he said. “Any time that you stop the flow of motorized traffic, you may run into pockets of congestion.”

However, the five-phase HAWK beacon is not expected to add to any congestion, since it only lights up when pedestrians trigger it.

Once it’s activated, the beacon flashes a yellow light that warns drivers to slow down. The beacon then turns solid yellow, and finally morphs into a dual solid red light, before the red light begins to flash and a countdown lets pedestrians know how much time they have left to cross the street.

“The beauty of a HAWK beacon is that if there are only one or two (pedestrians) and they’re crossing quickly, you don’t have to wait through the whole signal,” Kitchen said. “In that sense, it can keep the traffic moving.”

Although HAWK beacons aren’t widely used in Utah, Kitchen said they are an increasingly popular option at mid-block crossings, partly because even international visitors generally understand that they’re supposed to stop at a solid red light.

“It just brings a little more awareness,” he said.

Signals replace low-tech traffic flags

As UDOT studied the feasibility of additional traffic controls on Main Street, the Moab City Council approved an agreement earlier this year that allowed the city to set up “Stop for Pedestrian” signs and hand-held traffic flags at the two intersections.

Derasary even volunteered to make her own flags, but thanks in large part to a donation from the Grand/ San Juan Association of Realtors, she didn’t have to.

On occasion, she said, the city would hear from tourists and others who found the flags to be helpful. But they were not a long-term fix to traffic safety problems at the intersection.

“I think that as an interim effort to ensure safety, it was better than nothing,” she said.

Anecdotally speaking, the flags may have been more effective than the yellow beacons.

From their nearby vantage point on 200 South, Canyonlands Napa Auto Parts Manager Derrick Daye and store employee Matt Jones both agreed that the flashing yellow lights created confusion among drivers and pedestrians alike.

“It’s not a light that you’re used to seeing anywhere else,” Daye said.

In theory, at least, drivers were supposed to yield to pedestrians at the crossings when the yellow lights were flashing. But sometimes, motorists breezed right through the intersections as pedestrians waited to cross, or were already midway across the road.

“It’s happened so many times, where they’re right out in front of you … because this (other) car is blocking your line of sight,” Daye said.

In other cases, cars came to a complete stop when the lights flashed, while pedestrians froze in place near the curbs, unsure of when they were supposed to cross.

“The other people were so far off the street,” Daye said. “They could be standing there, and you don’t know what they’re doing.”

Jones said he witnessed incidents where drivers nearly clipped several people when the flashing yellow beacon at 200 South was in place, so he’s glad that it’s finally gone.

“Nobody’s going to get killed with that stupid blinking yellow light,” he said. “We always had close calls with people trying to cross the street.”

In addition to improving safety at the intersection, Jones and others said it will make life much easier for drivers who turn from 200 South onto Main Street.

“It’s going to make it so we don’t have to sit up there for 30 minutes to make a left-hand-turn, so it will be great,” Jones said. “It’s an exaggeration, but it usually did take quite a while, especially in season.”

“You’d have to wait, or go around the block and come in from the other street,” Moab resident Steve Kennedy said. “It would take some time – longer than you should have to wait to make a left-hand turn.”

State Liquor Store cashier Dawn Moerman said she’s heard similar comments from her customers.

“They love it,” Moerman said. “It’s awesome – that’s what they say. They like the fact that they can make a left-hand turn without a problem.”

Stoplight, beacon, replace widely criticized flashing lights on Main Street

I went out and used them, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool. I can actually cross the street.’