Traffic lights in Steamboat Springs control the flow of cars Thursday afternoon.

Photo by John F. Russell

Traffic lights in Steamboat Springs control the flow of cars Thursday afternoon.

Engineers fine-tuning traffic lights in Steamboat

City, state engineers create temporary traffic patterns downtown


— When the project is complete, the downtown Steamboat Springs traffic lights are designed to work like one connected computer, with fiber optic cables running from intersection to intersection, orchestrating all the cars.

Until those cables are in­­stalled in the spring, however, the lights still are controlled by a timing program that city and state engineers are trying to fine-tune with new intersections and new features.

“We’re in an interesting period where there’s enough cooperation going on right now as whose fault is it? It’s all of our faults,” city engineer Ben Beall said.

The Colorado Department of Transportation owns, maintains and is responsible for the lights and the timing patterns in downtown Steamboat Springs, but city workers are providing advice and a study on the lights to help the state engineers get the kinks worked out of the system. The lights will remain on a timer throughout the winter but are triggered by sensors under the road at each cross street.

CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks said any time a problem is brought to CDOT, the engineers will review it.

Jim McVeigh, a driver for Go Alpine who regularly crosses the downtown area, said the light timings have been frustrating enough for him that he has started to use Yampa Street and avoid Lincoln Avenue as much as possible.

“I do that to avoid it because, yeah, they should have some timing,” he said. “It seems that they’re long. Like a lot of times I’ll come up Yampa to 11th (Street) … going west, and I can tell you the lights on the cross are very, very long.”

Beall said the wait to turn from a cross street onto Lincoln Avenue could be long if the cars don’t trip the sensors under the road. He said the maximum wait time should be about two minutes, and in a news release he said drivers could make an effort to hit the sensors by knowing where they are.

The car sensors are 3 feet wide and 20 feet long, installed below the intersections in the middle of the lane between the colored crosswalk and the asphalt street.

“If a vehicle does not pull up to the white stop bar, pulls too far forward, or is too far to the side near the curb, the signal will not detect the car,” he said. “If a vehicle is waiting at the intersection and the signal does not change, then most likely the car is not being detected.”

The side street lights are triggered only when there is a car waiting.

Steamboat Springs Transit Operations Manager Jonathan Flint said bus drivers also are getting used to the new timing system. He said anticipating when a light will change can be helpful for bus drivers, especially in slick weather, so they ensure the bus stops in time.

With the old timing system, drivers knew there were 13 flashes of the walk sign before the light changed, he said.

“They definitely are relearning,” Flint said, but drivers are adapting and have to be ready for anything as the traffic pattern changes. “As the roads get icy and slick, they’re really going to be looking to learn that type of stuff.”

Flint said drivers also have to be more careful to not get caught in intersections. With the new light timing, he said some drivers have found themselves with a green light but unable to drive forward because traffic is backed up at the next intersection.

Beall said the crews have noticed a few missed timings in the past week, including at the busy Seventh and Eighth street intersections, that city crews will pass along to CDOT workers as they come to town in the coming weeks to tweak the settings.

— To reach Zach Fridell, call 871-4208 or e-mail


weststmbtres 6 years, 6 months ago

Was anybody paying attention this spring and summer. Seeing that we had the whole expanse of Lincoln Avenue excavated, we somehow didn't have the foresight to install the cables when the dirt was exposed.


housepoor 6 years, 6 months ago

pipes are there, fiber is just not pulled yet.


WZ 6 years, 6 months ago

I smell a problem brewing with this type of a sensor system.

It's been my experience that these sensors work fine and dandy for cars and the like, but not for motorcycles and bicycles.

A motorcyclist and bicyclist will sit, and sit, and sit, until a heavier weighted vehicle pulls up behind them to trip the sensor. That's most notable on a side street or a left turn lane.

Not so efficient and user friendly, especially when trying to promote 2 wheeled transportation in town.

How sensitive will these sensors to motorcycles and bicycles?


WZ 6 years, 6 months ago

How sensitive will these sensors >be< to motorcycles and bicycles?


weststmbtres 6 years, 6 months ago

I see. If the pipes are there then why must we wait until spring to pull the cable? The story makes it sound like we need warm spring weather for more dirt and concrete work.

CDOT and the city are burning time and money trying to get the lights timed using the old system. Couldn't we spend this time and money pulling the new cable and getting the new system working?

WZ, you have a great point. The sensor at the Transit Center has malfunctioned since day 1. It still stops west bound traffic for no reason during the evening rush hour so east bound vehicles can pull out of the parking lot.


weststmbtres 6 years, 6 months ago

Although there is a lot of different technology that has been tried, most street sensors work on the induction principle. A wire loop buried in the pavement with a current running through it creates a magnetic field. It's not the weight of the car, it's the physics of putting a large iron or steel object in the middle of the magnetic field that the inductor loop creates. The change in magnetic field induces a change in the current flowing in the wire. This is what signals the traffic light that a car is present. Motorcycles and bicycles might not have enough effect on the magnetic field to change it. Especially newer bikes constructed with mostly aluminum and carbon fiber that have very little magnetic properties. That's why they sit and sit, not because they are lightweight.

However, I'm not entirely sure, but from the description in the story it sounds like our new sensors in Steamboat might be different than the technology described above. Someone with more knowledge of the subject will have to chime in on that fact.


SVT 6 years, 6 months ago

I would sure love to see them flashing yellow until 6:30am like they have for the past several years. How can we make that happen again? Cycling the lights on a timed system isn't necessary when there are not very many vehicles on the side roads or main drag between midnight and 6-6:30am.


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