City leaders continue to move forward on a traffic signal synchronization project designed to speed up traffic and avoid fender-benders on Pacific Coast Highway.

Malibu’s stretch of Pacific Coast Highway — once known as a shortcut for travel between Santa Monica and Ventura County — has of late earned its reputation as a clogged traffic artery on the westside of Los Angeles County. For Malibu residents and visitors (particularly cyclists), it’s also known as a dangerous thoroughfare where several people are killed in traffic collisions each year.

It was for that reason that the City of Malibu commissioned a traffic safety study for the roadway. That study was completed in 2015.

The safety study, which gathered three years’ worth of data along Malibu’s 21-mile stretch of PCH, recorded 1,000 collisions, 376 of which caused injuries and nine of which resulted in fatalities. According to the safety study, the most common types of incidents were rear-end collisions approaching signalized intersections.

The study suggested 130 potential projects to help alleviate some of the traffic dangers; chief among them, ranked at No. 1, was to “Install communication between signals and connect signals back to Caltrans TMC [transportation management center].”

Details of the proposed project included new timing and coordination plans “optimized with appropriate cycle lengths and time-based schedule for proper traveling speeds and to generate reasonable gaps for cross streets and driveways.”

Speaking at the Monday, Jan. 24, Malibu City Council meeting, Malibu Public Works Director Rob DuBoux described how the system was designed to work.

“All of the signals will have special sensors that will detect traffic in certain situations and adjust the timing and synchronization of the lights accordingly based on the current traffic demands,” DuBoux said. “And so, that’s what’s very new and innovative with this project — to have the ability to kind of have the technology built into the traffic signals to be able to kind of on-the-fly adjust those traffic signals.”

The system will also include cameras and be more accessible to those with disabilities.

“Improvements will include new closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras at each intersection, replace existing signal poles with new signal poles, street improvements and ADA upgrades, ATCS [adaptive traffic control system] sensors, and changeable message signs,” the City of Malibu website describes. “Mid-block sensors will enable Caltrans to monitor traffic flow and speed, then remotely adjust signal timing in the moment.”

A panel of traffic engineers from nearby cities including Santa Monica helped to select the final design, from engineering consultant Kimley-Horn.

Now, in 2022, the City is taking steps toward finally commencing the project, which will see the synchronization of traffic signals on an eight-mile stretch of PCH between Topanga Canyon Boulevard and John Tyler Drive (at the Pepperdine University campus in central Malibu, just past Malibu Canyon Road).

At its Monday meeting, Malibu City Council approved an agreement with Caltrans, which owns the highway, to continue to move forward with the project, which will be paid for with LA County transportation bonds — specifically, Measure R (a countywide half-cent sales tax), passed in 2008. Approved at $13.7 million when it was developed in 2017, the project budget has grown to $14.6 million.

The 2015 study lists 19 traffic signals along Malibu’s 21 miles; 12 of those signals would be part of the synchronization project. However, the highway has changed in the intervening seven years. Two new traffic signals have been added to that eight-mile stretch of highway: one east of the Malibu Pier and another near La Costa Beach, closer to Malibu’s eastern edge. Both of those signals, plus two others that were already in place, are triggered by pedestrians indicating their wish to cross the street by pressing a button located on the light pole.

“It seems there’s a fundamental conflict between, on the one hand, synchronizing all the lights to produce an even flow of traffic and, on the other hand, allowing some lights to be on-demand at the push of a button,” one member of the public who spoke at the Monday meeting, Kraig Hill, said. Hill went on to predict that either the random signal changes would render the synchronization project useless or else (if the signal change waits for the synchronized traffic flow and doesn’t immediately stop traffic) hotel valets and other repeat beachgoers would learn not to rely on signals being reactive and would dart out into traffic to cross the highway.

But the system is adaptable, Malibu City staff replied.

DuBoux said there will be elements to the system that will signal if a pedestrian wants to cross and adjust the timing of the crossing to gaps in traffic.

“There also is a timer, too, that will adjust to that and will take into consideration all the synchronization that goes on and find out a good time to do that.”

DuBoux acknowledged that pedestrians asked to wait too long would be tempted to cross against the light.

“What I told Kraig was that it is very, very flexible,” DuBoux said. “It will automatically make those changes, but if we see those things [long waits] happening, we can make adjustments with the programming and synchronization.”

Malibu city staff did not immediately respond to questions about the project’s budget increases or when the long-expected project was expected to be completed.