Last time the skies opened up, courier Paul Katik knew what to expect -- traffic lights out all over the city causing jams at intersections, driver confusion and delayed deliveries.
"It happens a lot, especially after it rains heavily or when it snows," said Katik, the owner of Slingshot Courier.
Last year, Winnipeg's traffic signals malfunctioned 3,100 times. That's a lot, an average of eight trouble calls a day, but it's a huge improvement over past years.
Katik has noticed the improvement. During a recent rainstorm, Katik was mildly surprised more traffic lights didn't short out. "It was a lot better than I was expecting it to be," he said.
The city's 650 traffic signals have often been a source of driver disgruntlement. Motorists feel like they get stopped at every intersection, and a light sprinkle of rain seems to cause mass outages. CAA Manitoba, in its annual contest to name the worst road, decided this year to shift the kvetching away from potholes to other issues such as congestion and signal timing. Roughly 12 per cent of the 5,100 motorists' votes were for spots with bad traffic lights and frequent jams.
"So it's safe to say traffic congestion and timing of traffic lights is a huge concern for Manitobans," said CAA spokeswoman Angèle Young.
An audit several years ago found the city's signals branch lacked the money and manpower to do regular maintenance, was stymied by ancient technology, typically took two hours to respond to trouble calls and was generally woefully behind on best practices.
"A poorly maintained traffic signal can compromise traffic efficiency and safety," declared auditors.
In New York, where that city's new mayor has pledged to eliminate traffic deaths in a decade, among the dozens of safety initiatives are better signal timing to control speeds and more visible traffic lights.
Winnipeg's traffic lights are far from perfect, after decades of shoestring budgets that have only been fattened in the last few years. A plan started six years ago to better synchronize signals still hasn't hit downtown. There is still only one engineer working on timing the lights for the whole city. And there's no ability yet to control lights in real time from one computerized command centre.
But, the signals branch has made significant improvements since the audit was released in 2010. Since then, the number of trouble calls has shrunk by 42 per cent, largely thanks to a host of small, intersection-by-intersection upgrades such as the use of long-lasting LED lights and even backup power generators at busy crossings for when the hydro is out.
"We advanced 30 years in the past four," said city traffic-signals engineer Michael Cantor. "Seriously, there have been lots of upgrades, lots of new stuff."
The city's traffic-signal trouble-call database, which was provided to the Free Press, says technicians responded to nearly 12,000 trouble calls over three years. Technicians found no problems in 2,000 of those calls.
The most common trouble calls were bulb issues -- there were 2,600 of those between 2010 and 2012.
Damage, such as motorists who ran into poles, was another top call at more than 1,000. Roughly 400 poles are knocked down by drivers every year, especially in the winter. The poles are designed with breakaway bolts, so they fall over easily and reduce the likelihood the collision will badly hurt the motorist. But that means more calls for downed lights.
And, says Cantor, the roughly 300 calls a year related to the old electromechanical controllers have been eliminated. Among the big jobs over the last couple of years was computerizing those 190 remaining relics, which used a timing dial set with a pin. With a modern computer system housed in those grey boxes at every intersection, traffic engineers can more precisely synchronize the lights and eventually control the light in real time from a traffic-monitoring centre.
The move away from the old-school, clockwork signal controllers also made the streets safer, said Cantor. If something goes wrong with a computerized light, it reverts to flashing reds in all directions, which most motorists can handle.
The old-school lights often got stuck, and frustrated drivers started running reds. Stuck lights at old electromechnical intersections happened nearly 590 times over three years, the city's database says.
But the old lights resisted bad weather better. Now, when there's a heavy, sideways rain or a big snow that melts into the guts of a traffic controller or pole, that causes shorts. For the last couple of years, the city has been sealing up poles and is hoping to do more if some extra capital funding comes through next year.
Thanks to $11.5 million earmarked in 2008 the branch is still spending, the city has synchronized lights on 11 routes, including Portage Avenue and Henderson Highway, making it less likely cranky motorists will take risks by gunning it though ambers. Staff have even gone back and reviewed the timing again on routes they've already synchronized, such as Pembina Highway and Kenaston Boulevard.
The trouble is, the city has only one engineer responsible for the tricky business of planning signal timings. The branch could use six people.
What staff haven't yet done is better time the lights in the downtown, in part because of a software glitch. Cantor hopes the downtown work will be done later this year or early next.
The next big job -- creating a central traffic war room where lights can be remotely controlled -- is likely years away. That involves installing sensor loops under the pavement at each major intersection to allow real-time traffic counts and small tweaks to signal timing to improve flow.
But only about a third of all traffic signals are connected wirelessly to the bare-bones beginnings of a control centre. The city is slowly working to connect up the rest over the next year so that, if something goes wrong at any intersection, technicians will know right away without waiting for a call from a motorist.
That could eventually allow the city to send out a tweet or an email to local traffic reporters. "The idea is we'll start feeding the public instead of being fed by the public," said Cantor.