The city is working to repair a radio transmitter that controls school zone lights across town, which could address some of the widespread problems — particularly the lights that flash on evenings, weekends and holidays rather than weekdays when kids are in school.
All the school zone lights in New Orleans are controlled by a central computer system that communicates with them via radio. The transmitter is located on a state-owned radio tower in Lakeview, near the intersection of Pontchartrain Boulevard and Veterans Boulevard.
“The transmitter is temporarily down,” Landrieu spokesman Brad Howard said in an email this week. “A special cable is required to restore the transmitter to full operational capability. We anticipate the cable to be delivered and installed next week.”
In January, the Lens found that nearly half of the 147 school zone flashers in the city were malfunctioning. Some lights didn’t work at all on school mornings and afternoons; others flashed on weekends. Many lights displayed a low-battery warning. In some cases, the solar panels pointed the wrong way, away from the most direct sunlight.
None of those issues are the fault of the equipment itself, said Jeff Smith, a former municipal traffic engineer who now works for Temple Inc., the company that supplied the lights and solar panels. “The system, as it was designed, was a good one,” he said.
Smith said his company trained the city and a contractor, Jack B. Harper Electrical, on how to install and maintain the system.
Smith said the problems found by The Lens could be due to improper installation and lack of maintenance, though he’s not familiar with how the city now maintains them.
For example, school flashers aren’t supposed to be installed under trees or overpasses that block the solar panels. The Lens found cases of both.
The lights can be programmed remotely for up to 500 days at a time. The transmitter sends the schedule to the lights and keeps their internal clocks in sync.
“The individual school zone flashers have the ability to keep at least one week of programming internally,” Smith said. “If they don’t receive communication from the central [command] to change, then that week stays the same.”
That would explain why the lights on the 2300 block of Orleans Avenue, for example, were flashing on Mardi Gras.
The transmitter also syncs each light’s internal clock. Beacons that flash at odd hours — 10 p.m. on a Saturday, like one on South Claiborne Avenue near Eleanor McMain Secondary School — could have a problem with their internal clocks, Smith said.
The system can be programmed to accommodate citywide holidays and individual school schedules, Smith said. That’s an issue in New Orleans, where more than 40 organizations have different calendars for their public charter schools, in addition to the various private schools.
Howard said the Public Works Department reviews published school calendars “to determine which dates provide coverage for all schools in New Orleans.” The department will adjust those dates if school leaders request it, he said.
The Lens found some lights that were out and others that blinked quickly, indicating that their batteries were low. Told of the problems, the city originally blamed the solar panels, saying they couldn’t deal with long periods of cloudy weather.
However, some solar panels appear to have been installed incorrectly. They’re supposed to point south, where they’ll capture the most sunlight.
Smith said the the solar panels and batteries, manufactured by a Canadian company called Carmanah, are designed for the “worst possible situation.”
During cloudy stretches, the system is supposed to dim the lights to conserve battery power.
With new batteries, Smith said, “you could run a flasher up to 30 days without the battery being recharged.”
But if the batteries in New Orleans date to 2008, when the system was installed, it may be time to replace them.
City Councilwomen LaToya Cantrell and Nadine Ramsey promised to take action after they learned of the widespread problems.
Ramsey said she would bring up the issue Tuesday at a City Council committee meeting overseeing Public Works. Cantrell plans to address the issue at a March 5 school transportation working group. She helped to form the group after six-year-old Shaud Wilson was killed by a car as he crossed Paris Avenue in Gentilly to get to his bus stop.
Howard said the city has repaired some of the lights. In January, as The Lens was surveying every school zone light in the city, 20 to 30 of them were fixed. That brought the percentage of malfunctioning lights from 60 percent to 45 percent.
“We are currently tracking about 12 flashers that are not operating correctly,” Howard said, “and are working to get those flashers repaired as soon as possible.”