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The Toledo Zoo ceremonially lit its huge Christmas tree this evening, officially kicking off the Lights Before Christmas exhibit that annually attracts well over 100,000 visitors to the zoo.
But accompanying those crowds on busy nights in recent years have been tremendous traffic backups on the Anthony Wayne Trail. Furthermore, drivers turning left from the northbound Trail into Hippo Way, which leads to the zoo’s main parking lot, often block the 50-mph highway’s southbound lanes waiting for cars ahead to move.
A Toledo police official and a zoo representative both said today they plan to do more this year to try to control traffic and reduce the risk of a high-speed, broadside collision that could occur if a southbound Trail motorist with a green light at the Hippo Way traffic light didn’t notice cars blocking his or her path until it was too late to stop.
“Normally, we can’t send active-duty officers out there [to direct traffic],” said Lt. Jeff Sulewski, head of the police department’s traffic section. “But we probably should make a contact” with the zoo to brainstorm measures that could improve traffic safety, he said.
Andi Norman, the zoo’s marketing and public relations director, said that on busy nights, zoo officials ensure all lanes are open at the lot entrance, and staff also are on-hand to direct patrons to open parking spots so that vehicles are not delayed once the parking fee has been paid.
“We really work hard to move traffic into the parking lot as quickly as we can,” Ms. Norman said.
Nonetheless, traffic backups have been a growing problem as Lights attendance also has grown. A record 179,267 people bought Lights Before Christmas tickets last year, bringing to more than 3.5 million the number of visitors since the zoo started the festive exhibit in 1986.
Several years ago, the zoo installed electronic signs alerting Anthony Wayne Trail motorists to use the right lane (southbound) or left lane (northbound) to queue up for the turn into the zoo parking entrance.
Zoo traffic was not heavy today night for the tree lighting, but tends to pick up after Thanksgiving. On peak nights -- mostly weekends, and especially when it’s warm and dry outside -- zoo traffic backs up past the electronic signs, especially on the Trail’s southbound side.
On several nights last year -- most prominently Dec. 1, when 14,149 people visited the zoo -- southbound traffic backed up nearly to I-75, more than two miles, with wait times estimated at an hour. Some motorists seeking to cut into that line slowed significantly or stopped in the center lane, causing an additional traffic hazard.
Ms. Norman said the zoo has added activities during the show that it hopes will attract more Lights visitors to arrive early, including ice skating on the zoo’s rink and the interactive Snow Globe Live exhibit, both of which open when the zoo gates open at 3 p.m. -- about two hours before sunset.
The zoo also tries to relieve the traffic crush at the main lot by directing members of groups that have booked private parties during Lights to park in a satellite lot normally reserved for zoo employees, she said.
Traffic on the Trail, Ms. Norman said, “is not our jurisdiction,” but the zoo’s safety director plans to meet with city police to discuss ways to make Lights traffic safer.
Lieutenant Sulewski said off-duty police the zoo hires to work security detail during Lights also will monitor traffic near the parking entrance.
The Lights Before Christmas is open daily through Dec. 31 except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas. Hours are 3 to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights and 3 to 8 p.m. other nights, with the zoo closing one hour later each night.
Regular admission is $13, reduced to $10 for seniors 60 and over or children ages 2 to 11, while children under 2 are allowed in free. Advance tickets bought online have a $1 discount.