Crossing signals at the Napa Valley Vine Trail

Crews installed crossing signals at Wine Country and Solano avenues in May 2016 as part of work on the Napa Valley Vine Trail. A Napa County grand jury report published this week cites divided ownership of stoplights between the city and state as one impediment to signal synchronization that could reduce wait times and improve traffic flow for drivers as vehicle counts increase.

The city of Napa needs to upgrade its traffic signal control systems and partner with the state to lessen congestion and keep up with rising vehicle counts, the Napa County Grand Jury has concluded.

A grand jury report published this week urges the city to work with Caltrans to gain full control of the 78 signals installed within city limits. Divided ownership of signals between city and state – and the lack of an agreement for operational control – is impeding efforts to improve the timing and sequence of stoplights and relieve traffic backups as local vehicle counts grow, authors wrote.

The grand jury also called on Napa to install modern traffic management software by year’s end, better staff the city’s traffic signal monitoring center, and draw up a plan to replace, repair and maintain stoplights citywide before 2021.

The report complimented several steps by Napa’s Public Works department to better manage its traffic control devices. But jurors said more wide-ranging changes will be needed as vehicle counts continue to climb – from more than 314,000 a month in 2014 to 414,000 two years later at Soscol and Imola avenues, for instance – as new businesses open and more tourists frequent the city.

Napa’s efforts cover only the 53 signalized intersections it oversees, including those on Jefferson Street, Soscol and Lincoln avenues, Redwood Road and Trancas Street. The remaining 25 signals are controlled by Caltrans and govern traffic on and near state routes including Highway 121, which includes parts of Imola Avenue and the Silverado Trail, and Highway 29 and its interchanges.

Jury members were told that Caltrans has declined to turn over control of its signals along the Highway 29 corridor, Imola and Silverado.

Jurors reported the difficulties of split ownership are especially acute at Highway 29’s interchange with Redwood Road and Trancas Street, the major east-west retail and commercial artery for the city’s north side.

Stoplights regulate drivers not only on the freeway and Trancas/Redwood but also Solano Avenue to the west and California on the east, and the Napa Valley Wine Train also passes through Redwood at a gated crossing on the west side of Highway 29. However, none of the traffic safety devices work in concert with the others because of their control by different agencies – Caltrans for the freeway ramps, Napa for the nearby streets and the Wine Train for the rail crossing.

In an email late Thursday afternoon, Tony Tavares, Caltrans’ District 4 director Tony Tavares, whose area includes Napa County, said: “Caltrans always looks for and appreciates opportunities to partner with cities and counties in maintaining local infrastructure and roadways. We will continue to work with the City of Napa to identify solutions and are always willing to talk about options for maintenance and operations for traffic signals on local routes.

Unified city control of all the signals in the area would reduce backups not only into and out of Highway 29, but on city streets and especially the Bel Aire Plaza shopping center just east, according to the report.

Other snags to traffic flow are structural and thus harder to correct in the short term, the grand jury added. Along Jefferson Street on the west side of downtown, intersections at Third, Second, First and Clay streets – all with stoplights – are so closely bunched on short blocks as to prevent a continuous vehicle flow. Crossing pedestrians and emergency vehicles also can disrupt proper signal timing for cars for up to 15 minutes afterward, according to the report.

Elsewhere, the grand jury’s study asks Napa to purchase new signal-controlling software, which is currently being tested and is covered in the city’s new two-year budget, by Jan. 1. Furthermore, authors recommended filling a vacant engineering aide position to better staff the city’s Transportation Operations Center, which opened in 2017 uses video cameras to monitor signals at 18 intersections for timing and malfunctions.

Despite various obstacles, Napa’s public works staff has managed several steps to reduce traffic delays, according to grand jurors.

A 2016 project to synchronize stoplights on Trancas, Redwood and Soscol – using five GPS-guided clocks to change the signal pattern from the morning to evening commuting periods – shortened the average number of stops and the average wait time at crossings, the report stated. In addition, new signal equipment at Second and Main streets downtown uses a “scramble” timing pattern in which those on foot can cross in all directions during one cycle while traffic is stopped in all other directions.

State law gives the Napa City Council 90 days from the report’s release to make a formal response to the grand jury.

On Wednesday, Public Works Director Julie Lucido declined to comment in detail on the findings before the council responds, although she added: “We’re pleased the grand jury took the time and had commendation for Public Works’ proactive approach (to traffic control); we took that as a big positive.”

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.