A new, more visible pedestrian crosswalk signal — the first of its kind for Dakota County — will be installed this summer to protect children crossing Hwy. 11 to and from Echo Park Elementary School in Burnsville.
The signal, known as a hybrid beacon, will have mast arms extending over the road, holding the signals directly above drivers like a traffic signal. At a cost of about $100,000, the new signal will replace the standard yellow crosswalk sign at the side of the road.
"I have high expectations that it will work and function very well," said Burnsville City Engineer Ryan Peterson. "One hundred thousand [dollars] is certainly an investment that Dakota County and the city are making. We don't put that kind of investment in pedestrian crossings very often."
The crossing at County Road 11 and 140th and Evergreen Drive is between the school on the west side of the highway and a residential neighborhood on the east.
It's a mid-block crossing that the school has labeled hazardous, making the children eligible for bus transportation even though they are close enough to walk. But because they are at the start of the route, they face long bus rides, and parents would like them to be able to walk across the road, Peterson said.
The new signal will be installed this summer, before school opens in the fall, with the understanding that children would be accompanied by parents whenever they use it.
"We feel that will provide the safest crossing possible," Peterson said.
Peterson has seen one of the hybrid beacons in use in Fargo and expects it to be a safety improvement for the school.
"It's effective because the red light is right over the road like drivers are used to. It flashes yellow and then it turns red. Drivers understand that, because that is what we are used to. If someone goes through when it's red, it would be difficult for a driver to state I didn't know I had to stop."
The new signal is going in now because the yellow, continuously flashing beacon on the side of the road is outdated and needed to be replaced, Peterson said.
"We didn't want to put the flashing yellow back in. Drivers become numb to it if they are driving that road every day. We wanted to find something that was going to grab your attention."
There are only a handful of the hybrid beacon signals around the state, but they may become more common now that they have been approved by the Federal Highway Administration as a good option. They are useful in places that do not warrant a full set of traffic signals but need more protection than the standard crossing sign.
The signals consist of two red lights above a single yellow light. Each mast arm holds two of the three-light sets over the road with a sign in between them saying STOP ON RED.
When a pedestrian presses the button to cross the street, the yellow lights flash, then turn solid and then the red lights turn a solid red. It provides about 15 seconds for the pedestrian to pass.
When the pedestrian clears the crossing, the red lights flash, indicating cars may proceed if the coast is clear. After the crossing, the lights go dark until the next pedestrian uses them.
When the Dakota County Board learned about the signal, many members said flashing lights might be confusing to drivers.
In fact, at the only such signal installed on a state highway, on Hwy. 23 or Division Street in St. Cloud, drivers have been confused about what to do when the red lights flash, Minnesota Department of Transportation traffic engineer Tom Dumont said. Some stay stopped when the red lights flash and others go. So MnDOT put up an additional sign saying drivers may proceed on flashing red, he said.
Dakota County traffic engineer Kristi Sebastian said motorists are reserved about proceeding during a flashing red light until they are accustomed to the signal. But, she said, "That is a safe action. Staying stopped longer is not going to cause any safety issue.''
The county is not considering installing the signal at any other locations at this time, she said.