Bill backs left turns

Legislators say center medians hurt businesses and want DOT to stop projects.

Staff WriterMay 10, 2011 

  • See the Crosstown Traffic blog ( blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown) for links to legislation and research about highway medians and the effect on traffic and businesses.

The Senate is scheduled to vote today on a proposal to rip out part of an Asheville road, and to re-engineer a growing list of highway projects that some legislators don't like.

The projects - four, at last count - all feature new center medians that are designed to limit left turns.

Retailers along these roads want to keep it easy for their customers to come and go. They worry that new restrictions on left turns will be bad for business.

"We can't afford to lose one job around here, much less who knows how many dozens," said Rep. Stephen A. LaRoque, a Kinston Republican who sponsored the bill. "The legislature should have the final say on projects like this before they go through."

The legislation would force the state Department of Transportation to change its plans to widen U.S. 64 in Asheboro and Winstead Road in Rocky Mount. In Kinston, DOT would have to forget about building a new median intended to reduce crashes on U.S. 70.

And in Asheville - where construction is 80 percent finished on a $14.7 million job to widen N.C. 191 - DOT would be required to rip out a new median on nearly one-half mile of the road "and rehabilitate the turn lane area so that it may once again function as a turn lane."

That language was added last week by the Senate Transportation Committee. The committee amended the House-approved bill - which LaRoque had aimed only at the U.S. 70 median in Kinston - to include the other three road projects. If approved by the Senate, the amended bill would go back to the House for concurrence.

The bill puts the legislature in a position of making decisions usually left to DOT engineers. Sen. Clark Jenkins, a Tarboro Democrat, thinks legislators should leave well enough alone.

"I don't think the General Assembly needs to get in the business of planning road design," Jenkins said. "That's the mission of DOT, not the legislature."

Where highway medians block left turns, customers must make U-turns to enter the affected businesses.

"They would have to drive down Winstead to one of the busiest intersections in our city, Sunset Avenue, and then make a U-turn," said Lisa Tharrington of Rocky Mount, who has operated Superior Dry Cleaners on Winstead Avenue since 1986. "Then they would have to try to get over to the furthest lane on the outside to be able to get back to our business."

DOT engineers say these medians reduce rear-end collisions and other crashes related to left turns on busy roads. And with fewer cars stopping to turn, they say, traffic flows more smoothly.

"It's all about safety," said Terry Gibson, the state highway administrator. "We're looking at areas where we can correct accidents that are occurring today."

Some studies suggest that these medians do not cause the serious economic problems feared by merchants. The latest one was written by a research team at N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill.

Their report confirmed that traffic flow is improved and accidents are reduced. And in surveys of business people and customers, the researchers found little or no overall economic harm after the no-turn medians were installed.

"It was not what I expected," said Christopher M. Cunningham of NCSU, the lead author. "There were not significant changes between business before and business after."

DOT said it would cost an estimated $797,500 to replace the median with a center turn lane on the Asheville project.

"I don't think it is something we would want to do, because we think our design is the best in terms of providing for safety," Gibson said.

Legislators have approved or considered other DOT restrictions this year. One bill quickly passed and signed by Gov. Bev Perdue forced DOT to stop studying alternate routes for a proposed Wake County turnpike that might threaten sensitive wetlands.

The Senate is considering House proposals to give the legislature veto power over some rail projects, and to make DOT quit serving free coffee on the Amtrak Carolinian.

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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