Lisa Chaney has spent months alerting the City of Houston and Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) about a potentially dangerous traffic configuration at an intersection she drives through at least twice every weekday.
The Spring Branch resident started submitting requests to the city’s 311 system in February, when she noticed the traffic lights at the intersection of Hempstead Road and Pinemont Drive were almost always flashing red. There are multiple lanes as well as left-turn lanes on all four sides of the intersection and a railroad crossing immediately to the west, and a set of new-yet-unused traffic signals hangs above the pavement.
“This is, like, life or death,” Chaney said. “Somebody literally could get killed in that intersection, or hurt really bad.”
Chaney, who grew up in Garden Oaks and also lived in Oak Forest, wondered why the existing lights were malfunctioning and the new ones had yet to be turned on. So she also reached out to her city council representative, TxDOT and one of its subcontractors for an ongoing construction project along Hempstead Road – all in an attempt to find out what the problem was and when it would be solved.
Chaney said she got different explanations from different entities as well as the semblance of a promise from the city’s Transportation & Drainage Operations department, which told Chaney that the new traffic lights would be activated on July 21. When that did not happen, the city then told Chaney the switch would happen a week later.
It didn’t happen on Tuesday, either, and a new explanation emerged. TxDOT said the signals could not be activated because Union Pacific Railroad, which operates the nearby rail, needed to first conduct a test to make sure the traffic light system was in sync with the mechanical arm that lowers and blocks vehicles from crossing the railway when a train is passing.
“It’s all somebody else’s fault. Somebody else never does anything,” Chaney said. “Nobody has said, ‘Yes, that’s on us, we’re going to handle that.’ ”
TxDOT spokesperson Emily Black, whose agency controls the right-of-way for the intersection, said the ongoing work is part of a multi-year project to replace all the traffic signals along Hempstead Road between West Little York Road to the northwest and Long Point Road to the southeast. She said TxDOT is paying the contractor for the project (Main Lane) and subcontractor (Traffic Systems Construction) a total of $4.6 million to complete the work.
Black said the traffic signals are being replaced because they’re old and sometimes faulty, an explanation for them regularly flashing red at Hempstead and Pinemont. She said the reason for the delay in activating the new traffic signals is because the City of Houston, which is responsible for maintaining and programming the signals once they have been installed, asked for extra equipment to be used for safety purposes once the construction project was already underway.
Black also said a Union Pacific representative was “supposed to be there” Tuesday to conduct its test. But Union Pacific spokesperson Kristen South contradicted that statement, saying the railroad company was not asked to conduct a test at that intersection until it was contacted by Traffic Systems Construction on Tuesday to schedule the test for a later date.
Management for Traffic Systems Construction, based in Dickinson, did not respond to a request for comment.
“We were not scheduled to be out there (Tuesday). All that happened (Tuesday) is we got the call to set it up,” South said. “And we anticipate that happening next week, assuming that the equipment that the city installed meets our requirements to interact with our signal system.”
Erin Jones, a spokesperson for Houston Public Works and Transportation & Drainage Operations, said the city typically does not activate traffic signals on TxDOT-controlled roads until it gets the go-ahead from TxDOT or the state agency’s contractor that all the prerequisite work has been done. She said the city has never gotten such notification regarding the intersection of Hempstead and Pinemont, yet it told Chaney the signals would be activated on July 21 and then a week later.
Jones told The Leader on Monday that the new traffic signals would be activated on Tuesday.
“We’re ready whenever they’re ready,” Jones said Tuesday, referring to TxDOT. “We have to wait for them to say, ‘OK, we’re ready to turn it on.’ … I guess they thought it was going to be (Tuesday), just like they thought it was going to be last week.”
Regarding the issue with the existing traffic signals at the intersection frequently flashing red, Jones said the city first responded to Chaney’s concerns in February and subsequently asked TxDOT and its contractor about the problem. She said the contractor attributed the issue to a malfunction with the railway preemption – which activates when a train is approaching – but an investigation by the city determined that was not the case.
Jones said the city was then told by TxDOT that it would look into the problem, but never heard back. Black, the TxDOT spokesperson, said the flashing-light problem was temporarily fixed Tuesday.
Chaney said Tuesday, when the traffic signals were working normally, was only the third time she’s seen them work properly in the last several months. They were still cycling through green, yellow and red on Wednesday morning, she said.
“We are working as hard as we can with these three large entities,” said Black, referring to TxDOT, the city and Union Pacific. “It’s not for a lack of effort. We’re working on getting things done, and we’re close to the finish line.”
In an attempt to expedite the activation of the new traffic signals, Jones said the city loaned four Opticom sensors and other necessary materials to TxDOT and the contractor. Black said only the sensors were used for the intersection of Hempstead and Pinemont, with a wi-max antenna and loop detectors being used for other locations.
Houston City Council member Amy Peck, who serves the construction area in District A, was contacted by Chaney in May and has tried to escalate the sense of urgency for completing the project. Peck said her office contacted the office of State Rep. Anna Eastman, who also serves the area.
“It doesn’t matter to us whose jurisdiction it is,” Peck said. “We just need to make sure it gets done.”
Eastman’s chief of staff, Marisol Valero, echoed that sentiment. She said she reached out to TxDOT about one week into July and was told a week later that it needed the city to supply power to the intersection so the contractor could work on the lights.
Valero also said Chaney was right to be concerned about the signals at the intersection flashing red most of the time while a new set of signals waits to be activated.
“It’s one of those things where constituents have paid their taxes. We are all supposed to work with one another,” Valero said. “If something’s not getting done, where is the responsibility? Who is capturing the things that fall through the cracks at each independent agency? Who has the oversight of their own program?”
Chaney said she’ll be “relieved” when the new signals are activated. She also said she’ll “keep hounding them” until that happens.
Considering how long the work has dragged on already, though, Chaney is not convinced the issue will be resolved soon. She’s also bracing herself for a new explanation for why the signal saga at Hempstead and Pinemont continues.
“Next thing you know, it’ll be COVID’s fault,” she said. “The only thing that they haven’t told me so far is that it is because of the coronavirus.”