Sometimes, while sitting at an intersection and waiting for a traffic signal to turn green, I can almost feel myself getting older.

I try to be patient. I try to be Zen. I take deep breaths hoping to find my happy place. But poorly timed traffic signals just drive me nuts. On an island overcome with traffic, it clearly irks other residents too.

We recently asked Civil Beat readers to share which Oahu intersections they think have the worst traffic signals. The answers arrived via Facebook, Twitter and email — and they were all over the map.

Dole Street and University Avenue in Manoa. Bougainville Drive and Radford Street in Aiea. Kamehameha Highway near Acacia Road in Pearl City. Ward Avenue approaching the H-1 freeway. Nimitz Highway under the airport viaduct.

Alakea Street. Alakawa Street. Dozens chimed in.

One Twitter user even drew us a picture to make sure he got his point across:

To be fair, Honolulu is far from the only place with poorly timed signals. Drivers all over the world deal with them. They’re a fact of life. Cities are crowded by design, and navigating busy intersections requires patience.

Still, good traffic signal timing can be especially important on an island that faces some of the nation’s toughest traffic challenges and has few options to address them.

Relief isn’t coming any time soon. A baby born at The Queen’s Medical Center this week will be entering second grade by the time the island’s 20-mile rail transit line is now projected to open for service, in late 2026.

Given that state of affairs, smarter signal timing could help the island’s traffic move at least a bit more smoothly.

Unfortunately, Oahu’s more than 820 traffic signals lag behind the times, local transportation officials acknowledge.

Maybe half of them are connected to the island’s fiber optic network, which allows their timing to be adjusted by traffic managers in real time, city officials say. (The state’s highways division chief put the number closer to 30%.)

Even with that capability, the connected signals still lack so-called “advanced transportation controllers,” which can detect nearby traffic problems and feed the information back to the managers.

Traffic Lights along Waialae Avenue.
Cars navigate traffic signals along Waialae Avenue. These signals are connected to the island’s fiber optic network, so their timing can be changed in real time. But they lack the most recent technology. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Instead, managers rely solely on video feeds from cameras placed along the network to make adjustments, said Ty Fukumitsu, the city’s chief of the Traffic Signals and Technology Division.

“Our system, our controllers, granted (are) outdated,” Fukumitsu said last week. “We can talk to our controllers, but it’s not that smart.”

The island’s remaining signals — the majority that aren’t connected to the network — are antiquated “legacy” signals that can’t be adjusted in real time. Their timing has to be adjusted manually, usually after a traffic study.

In other words, the legacy signals aren’t smart at all.

“Our system, our controllers, granted (are) outdated. We can talk to our controllers, but it’s not that smart.” — Ty Fukumitsu, head of Honolulu’s Traffic Signals and Technology Division.

Meanwhile, other parts of the country have installed much smarter signal controls, local transportation officials say.

“We’re behind,” Ed Sniffen, the state’s deputy director for highways, said of Oahu’s signals in an interview earlier this year. “Other states have already moved forward on modernizing their signals. Our signals are still the legacy controls. On the neighbor islands, we’ve already changed them out.”

The city generally operates the island’s traffic signals. Fukumitsu said he doesn’t have an estimate for when all the legacy signals would be connected to the network.

“I haven’t sat down, I haven’t figured it out what is that realistic time frame,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “We need to talk to our partners, which includes (the) state.”

Leeward Coast Left Behind

The island’s fiber optic network stretches only as far west as Kapolei. Wahiawa and the Leeward Coast, two of Oahu’s most underserved communities, aren’t connected, according to Fukumitsu.

You can check which intersections are linked up by zooming in on this map, with data provided by the Department of Transportation Services:

It would cost as much as $8 million to expand the fiber optic network from Kapolei to Waianae, he said. That’s considered too costly for now.

There are cheaper ways, however, to link the legacy lights to the existing network using cellular or wireless technology.

Sniffen said there’s a goal to connect all the legacy signals to the network using cellular by the end of 2019. It could be done at a cost of $4.5 million, he added.

That’s “a small amount when you consider the impact it’s going to have for the community,” Sniffen said.

“I want everything connected by the end of this year,” he told me.

“And working?” I asked back then.

“Absolutely,” Sniffen replied.

Fukumitsu, however, wasn’t aware of Sniffen’s stated goal to connect all the legacy signals via cellular by 2019’s end when I asked him about it this month.

The goal wouldn’t be realistic, he said. The signal technology division is working to get the legacy signals compatible with car and phone traffic applications. Getting that done by the end of 2019 will be a challenge, and that doesn’t involve connecting the signals to the network, Fukumitsu added.

Edwin Sniffen Highways Division Deputy Director speaks about TMT/Mauna Kea traffic.
DOT Deputy Director for Highways Ed Sniffen wanted all Oahu’s traffic signals connected to a central network by the end of 2019. City traffic officials say that’s not possible. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The division also aims to start upgrading some of the “smart” signals on the network in 2020 with the smarter ATC controls that can detect congestion in their intersections, Fukumitsu said.

The ATCs have been shown to save time for drivers in comparable U.S. cities since becoming widely used in the past five years or so, Fukumitsu said.

Honolulu lagged behind on purpose to let those other cities work out the bugs first, he added.

“It’s not a bad thing to be last. They weed out all the problems with the system,” he said. “That’s been our approach, so when Honolulu gets it we know the capabilities.”

“We want to make sure our system is reliable. You only have one chance to show that the system works, to show it’s reliable. We have to get it right the first time.”

Drivers should still keep in mind, however, that their luck at the signals will never be perfect, Sniffen said.

“We’ll never see on a route an area where you’ll hit every green. It’ll never happen if there’s a two-way street,” he said. “If you get every green in one direction, you’re going to get every red in the other direction. We always have to balance it out.”

Jesse Souki, the reader who drew the picture on Twitter, isn’t feeling much balance sitting behind cars at Dole and Lower Campus road.

A few days later, he tweeted another picture to drive his point home:


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