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Seeing red over lights

Editor's note: The following is part of an Echo Press feature, "You Asked." Readers are invited to send the newspaper a simple question and we'll try to get to the bottom of it.

It's a frustration every driver deals with: long waits at the traffic lights.

It can be especially annoying when a driver hits every red light - driving a block, then stopping, driving another few blocks then stopping. You get the idea - an expected quick buzz through town seems to stretch into an endless wait.

It's a frustration the newspaper has heard frequently and one that prompted this "You Asked" question from a reader:

"There are 17 stoplights in Alexandria and only three of them - at 5th, 6th and 7th avenues - are timed. Why can't the stoplights on the main drag, between 3rd Avenue and I-94, be timed so that you aren't forced to stop at every light?"

The Echo Press turned to Tom Swenson, Minnesota Department of Transportation district traffic engineer, for an answer.

It's probably not one that drivers will like to hear but it makes sense. The gist of it: Expecting a dozen straight green lights between the 50th and 3rd Avenue is expecting too much.

If Alexandria's main drag were a one-way, it could be done, Swenson said. He noted that Fargo has a stretch of road that is timed so drivers can sail straight through a 10-block section of signal lights without stopping but that's only because it's a one-way.

Since Alexandria's Broadway has traffic flowing from both directions and since the number of vehicles stacked up in one direction of traffic typically differs from the other direction, there is no way to time the lights so both streams of traffic will get a green light all the way through town.

"What's good for one direction will start breaking down for the other," Swenson explained.

Some signals, the older ones, like those on 5th, 6th and 7th avenues, are on a fixed timing system. They don't have sensors buried in the pavement that can tell when cars are approaching the intersection. But even the intersections with sensors can't keep traffic flowing uninterrupted because the number of vehicles in the stream of traffic coming from the north won't always equal the vehicles in the south stream of traffic.

"We could make it perfect if there was only one direction of traffic," Swenson said.

The system does occasionally get out of sync, Swenson said. Sometimes, a signal crossing will fail altogether and that's when lights will start flashing a yellow or red warning.

MnDOT tries to keep the systems in-sync as best it can but there is only one person responsible for maintaining the lights in a 12-county area, Swenson noted.

So the bottom line for drivers on Broadway: Obey the speed limit, be patient and enjoy those short waits - it usually takes less than 30 seconds for the light to change.


Traffic lights in Alexandria are located at or near the following intersections with Broadway/Highway 29:

3rd Avenue

5th Avenue

6th Avenue

7th Avenue

10th Avenue

15th Avenue

17th Avenue

22nd Avenue

30th Avenue

34th Avenue

Dakota Street

50th Avenue

Interstate 94

There are also stoplights located at 3rd Avenue East/Highway 27 and Nokomis Street; 3rd Avenue West/County Road 82 and the Fairgrounds; 3rd Avenue East/Highway 27 and McKay Avenue; and Highway 29 North and McKay Avenue.

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Readers may send their "You Asked" question to Editor Al Edenloff, Echo Press, P.O. Box 549, Alexandria, MN 56308, fax it to (320) 763-3258, e-mail to or drop it off at our office at 225 7th Avenue East.