Mark Wisniewski, a self-employed eBay entrepreneur, runs his errands on foot, taking the back roads and side streets of Cheektowaga, where there is less traffic and fewer traffic signals.
"Honestly, those signals don't work the way they're supposed to," said Wisniewski. "When they're prompting you to walk, the cars are still coming. They're confusing. I honestly don't even use them. I find a break in the traffic somewhere down the road and cross on my own."
Faulty or nonfunctional traffic signals are dangerous for pedestrians and motorists, but cities and towns across the state are taking steps to upgrade their intersections to make them pedestrian-safe. And they're receiving a funding boost from Uncle Sam.
The New York State Pedestrian Safety Action Plan, a five-year, federally funded program developed in 2016, will funnel $40 million to target municipalities throughout the state, said Richard Guarino, principal transportation analyst for the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council.
Locally, about $4.8 million is headed to Buffalo, Niagara Falls and a cross-section of first-ring suburbs, including the towns of Cheektowaga, Amherst and Tonawanda, said Guarino.
The first-of-its-kind program, developed by the state Department of Transportation, is funded by the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program, he said. Projects implemented through the program would be 100 percent reimbursed, he said.
Here's a breakdown of the funding requests:
• Amherst tops the suburban request list with $985,000 in anticipated improvements to 13 intersections and six midblock crosswalks that lack signals entirely, said Chris Schregel, traffic safety coordinator.
• Cheektowaga is seeking a $750,000 grant to fund an array of pedestrian-based initiatives at 22 intersections, said Daniel Ulatowski, town planner.
• Tonawanda is seeking $786,375 to revamp 21 intersections, said James Jones, town engineer.
• Niagara Falls applied for $1.35 million to upgrade 23 signalized intersections and one midblock crossing, said Michael DeSantis, senior project designer.
• Buffalo estimated $10.2 million would cover the upgrades of 144 intersections with priority given to those around schools, on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and in the Central Business District, said Michael J. Finn, city engineer.
Buffalo has lots of walkers
The largest urban area in the state outside New York City wants the largest piece of the funding pie.
"Surely it's not our expectation that every dime in the region goes to Buffalo," said Finn. "We just want to show what our needs are if the other regions aren't able to use their allocated funding."
Starting in 2006 with the enactment of New York State’s first local Complete Streets Ordinance, Buffalo has made improvements to roadways that strive to balance the needs of all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists, said Finn.
"This grant is a big jump in Buffalo’s commitment to the safety of its most vulnerable roadway users," Finn said. "There are a lot of needs in a city where a lot of people walk at least for part of their daily commute."
There are more than 600 intersections in the city, said Phil Haberstro of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo. Haberstro, who leads walking groups throughout the area, pointed out the learning curve that likely will accompany the introduction of new pedestrian signals.
"It may take some education to make sure the general public understands the signals," Haberstro said. "As there has been more interest in walkable communities, the planners and engineers are designing pedestrian friendly pavement markings."
Finn said Buffalo's traffic signals are generally up to current standards.
"We want to standardize all signalized intersections, making them consistent in term of road marking and signage. At the risky intersections, we plan larger signage, and to add back plates behind the signals to make them more noticeable. The state DOT just did that on Elm and Oak streets. It makes the signals stand out."
Finn listed four priority intersections:
- East Delavan and Bailey avenues, near the East Delavan Branch Library, King Charter School and School 71.
- Ontario and Skillen streets, near School 65 Early Childhood Center and Nazareth Lutheran School.
- Michigan Avenue and High Street, on the Medical Campus.
- South Elmwood Avenue and West Huron Street.
The City of Buffalo did not provide the number of pedestrian fatalities since 2011.
Falls' signals in bad shape
Niagara Falls' signalization equipment is in rough shape, said DeSantis, senior project designer.
"There are some sign poles that are ready to fall down," he said. "In certain instances the grant does not cover poles, but we’re not about to put a $7,000 countdown timer with double pole heads on old rusted poles. We'll pay for the new poles. Our signalization equipment on side streets is cast off from other municipalities. Most of the stuff on state arterials is good."
DeSantis identified the priority intersections:
- Military Road at Catholic Academy of Niagara Falls.
- Buffalo Avenue and Portage Road.
- Highland and Calumet avenues.
In addition, DeSantis said that many signal intersections on Pine Avenue from Main to 27th Street will be upgraded.
Since 2011, four pedestrian and two bicyclist fatalities have been reported.
Seven walkers died in Cheektowaga
Ulatowski targeted three intersections as high priority: Cayuga Creek Road and William Street, Beach Road and Cleveland Drive, and Kensington Avenue and Century Road. The first is near Williamstowne Senior Village Apartments. Similarly, the Kensington-Century intersection is near commercial strip malls with restaurants, convenience stores and apartment houses. Both intersections see a fair amount of foot traffic, Ulatowski said.
"As a community, we are falling short on maintenance," he said. "We have a number of intersections that because of their age have a traffic signal, but nothing to benefit the pedestrian."
The average life span for a pedestrian signal is 20 to 25 years, Ulatowski said. Broken pedestrian signals with black signal faces – like the one at Dick Road and Barone Circle – do nothing for pedestrians, Ulatowski said.
Weather, salt and the resulting rust combine to ruin signals and pavement markings, said Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner. Replacing signal actuators can run up to $6,000, said Wegner.
Cheektowaga Police Lt. Steven Berecz of the Accident Investigation Unit cautioned pedestrians to pay attention, even though they have a computerized machine telling them when it's safe to cross.
"There are distracted pedestrians," Berecz said. "Some pedestrians pay attention to signals, but a majority do not. They don't wait for the light."
Cheektowaga will also seek funding for a Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon along Como Park Boulevard at the crossing of the Cheektowaga Rail Trail, said Ulatowski. The high-intensity warning lights notify drivers when a pedestrian or cyclist is entering the crosswalk.
Seven pedestrians have died in traffic accidents in Cheektowaga since 2011.
Tonawanda targets three intersections
"Signals are difficult to maintain because of lack of funding," said Jones, the Town of Tonawanda engineer. "The investment goes into pavement surfaces because motorists have high expectations for roads. Traffic signals affect your life but you're so accustomed to their antiquated operation, people just expect them to turn red and green."
A "complicated" intersection near a commercial strip tops Jones' upgrade list. It consists of three roads – Brighton, Eggert and Jamaica – and Loretta Street, and is located near Kenmore East High School.
The highest pedestrian traffic of Tonawanda's target intersections occurs on Delaware Road and Highland Parkway near Kenmore West High School. For this intersection, Jones is seeking a pedestrian-interval signal that gives pedestrians a three-to seven-second head start after the traffic has stopped.
The Colvin Boulevard/Deerhurst Parkway intersection rounds out Tonawanda's top three.
Uncontrolled crosswalks can be a nightmare and often are located midblock, said Jones. One in Tonawanda is in front of Brighton Park, a heavily used sports complex the features golf, swimming and baseball. That's where the town seeks a rectangular beacon signal that blasts yellow and red lights activated by a push button that tell drivers to slow down and stop. After the vehicles stop, the pedestrian signal flashes "walk."
Since 2011, there have been six fatalities involving pedestrians in Tonawanda.
Amherst saw 16 walkers killed
There are 13 town-owned signals Amherst plans to make pedestrian-friendly by providing signals with actuators, countdown timers and crosswalks, said Schregel, principal engineer assistant.
But even well-placed, up-to-date pedestrian signals won't keep a distracted driver from running amok, said Amy Fakterowitz, who lives in Williamsville. The third-grade teacher is a runner who described Amherst streets as "scary," even with signalized intersections. As an example, she cited the pedestrian signal at Main Street and Youngs Road.
"You push that button and it audibly tells you to wait and go," Fakterowitz said. "All these things are in place, but the drivers are not aware of what is going on around them. They look confused and appear to not know how to react. You can't make eye contact when people are looking at their phones."
The town's main priority is at the Wegmans supermarket on Alberta Drive, a "significant intersection" that should receive an audible signal, said Schregel. The intersection of LeBrun and Eggert roads, near Amherst Middle and High schools will get signals. Alberta Drive and Henel Avenue, home to the Walmart Superstore and T.J.Maxx, would receive an overhaul.
Schregel also identified at least six midblock crosswalks for placement of rectangular beacons, bumpouts and crosswalk striping.
"This is entirely for pedestrian safety," said Schregel.
Amherst has had 16 pedestrian fatalities since 2011.