2 traffic lights coming down in Florala

Published 12:24 am Wednesday, November 4, 2015

ALDOT: Engineers say it will keep traffic flowing

Despite the concerns and calls of dozens of Florala residents, two traffic lights will come down on Hwy. 331 in Florala today.

George Conner, region engineer for the Southeast Region of the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT), said yesterday that traffic engineers believe their plan is the best solution for keeping traffic flowing safely.


Count Florala Pharmacy owner Charles Smith among those who disagrees. Smith helped organize a town hall-type meeting with ALDOT officials in October in which a number of people expressed their concerns.

Among his concerns, he said, is that without the lights, travels won’t stop and shop with local retailers, because getting back in traffic will be too hard.

“We really need off-street parking,” he said. “There are several places where parking could be added.”

He also is concerned that without the lights, senior citizens who walk to town to pick up prescriptions or pay their water bills won’t be able to cross Hwy. 331.

At the October meeting, Florala Realtor Glen Powell, whose office is at the intersection of Hwy. 55 and Hwy. 331 (Sixth Street), said there have been times when he has had to stand in the street and stop traffic so a client could back out of a parking place.

For decades, there have been traffic lights in the downtown area of Florala at Sixth Street, Fifth Street, Fourth Street and Third Street. Conner said the lights at Fourth and Fifth streets have been switched to “flashing” for about eight months.

When the district ALDOT officer was contacted about traffic congestion in the summer, particularly with seasonal beach traffic, they began analyzing traffic flow.

“It was at that time it came to light that the two interior signals (4th Street and 5th Street) had been on flash mode fro many months.

“Our engineers began looking at the operation of those. If they had been in flash that long, why were they there?

“They were put in flash in response to peak seasons traffic,” Conner said. “The police chief put them on flash, and said it relieved congestion.”

When ALDOT analyzed traffic counts in April, there were 4,400 automobiles travelling through downtown Florala daily. The two streets with the lights in question – Fourth and Fifth – had considerably fewer vehicles, 220 and 88, than the highway.

“When you have very low traffic; having signal there when it is not needed, makes traffic conditions worse,” he said.

“It became clear they were too close together to operate in a way to safely and efficiently move traffic through there,” Conner said.

Police Chief Sonny Bedsole said turning the middle lights to caution not only made traffic move more efficiently, but cut down on the number of wrecks.

“When the lights were functioning for people to stop, we had two to three rear-end collisions per month,” he said.

The congestion is further complicated that there are four lanes of traffic entering and leaving Florala, but the traffic is condensed to two lanes in a two-block, downtown area.

Smith says because Florala is blessed with wide streets, he’s concerned the state will remove on-street parking and allow four lanes of traffic to move through town, too.

But Conner said that’s not happening now.

“I have strongly recommended to the city that they work with ALDOT to repurpose that parking so they could have four lanes through there,” he said. “They have room to make up that parking somewhere else.”

But for now, ALDOT won’t force the issue.

“We cannot improve what’s there if that section remains one lane in each direction,” he said.

In the weeks since the state announced by posting signs that the flashing lights would be removed, the local business community has become more vocal in its opposition, he said, adding that his office has received 40 to 50 phone calls, and that he has met with Florala Mayor Robert Williamson, and spoken with Sen.. Jimmy Holley and Rep. Mike Jones.

Public perception, he said, is that the flashing lights slow traffic down.

“We respectfully do not agree with that statement,” he said. “They are only 300 feet apart. The presence or absence of caution lights don’t have an impact on that.”

He said people also believe the flashing lights protect pedestrians.

“I understand that they perceive that to be the case,” Conner said. “I’m telling you that the perception is not correct. Flashing lights don’t cause people to stop, and they do not provide a protective spot for pedestrians to cross.”

Yesterday, Bedsole said, ALDOT workers erected stop signs on Fourth and Fifth Streets at Hwy. 55/331. Today, Conner said, the lights will come down.

“We’ll take the crosswalks out, too,” he said, adding that he’s not sure when the work will be scheduled.

Bedsole said things won’t be any different for the travelers who have to yield to stop signs today.

“People have to pull up there and stop now (on Fourth and Fifth streets),” he said. “We hope everybody will be cautious. It will take a little bit of getting used to, but they ha to stop anyway.”

Smith, said the traffic is the town’s second biggest asset.

“We have a beautiful lake and palm trees in the median,” he said. “Next to the lake, traffic is the biggest asset we’ve got. We need to make Florala a destination instead of a place people pass through.”