At the end of the busiest days at the N.C. Zoo, when 15,000 people have visited the orphaned cougar cubs and the new polar bear exhibit, the creatures feeling the most caged might be the humans trapped in a massive traffic jam as they try to leave the park.
It happens six, maybe eight times a year: Children are out of school, parents have a day off, the weather is good, and the family heads to Asheboro to the world’s largest natural-habitat zoo and one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions. To get there, most come into Asheboro from the east or west on U.S. 64 – a busy commercial thoroughfare known locally as Dixie Highway – and turn south on N.C. 159 to drive the last 4.4 miles to the zoo’s main entrance.
N.C. 159, a two-lane country route that rolls and winds past single-family homes and subdivisions, can handle the 3,000 or so vehicles that traverse it on an average day. But it was never intended to serve as the main avenue to the zoo and is now sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of traffic that tries to use it, especially at the end of the day when it seems everyone is trying to leave at the same time.
Now after years of facing complaints, state transportation officials are trying to make good on a 40-year-old promise for a connector road that would take traffic directly to the main entrance of the park.
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It can’t come soon enough.
If Gov. Pat McCrory realizes his hope of doubling the zoo’s attendance of about 750,000 people a year, traffic will only increase.
As it is, when the zoo opens a new exhibit or holds a special event such as October’s “Boo at the Zoo” – or it’s just a warm holiday weekend – cars, vans and buses pour out of the zoo parking lots near closing time and their drivers try to head back north on N.C. 159. But they get stopped by the traffic light at the intersection with U.S. 64, where cars trying to turn left, to head toward Greensboro and Charlotte, stack up in the turn lane. Drivers hoping to turn right, toward Raleigh, are stuck waiting behind them.
Sometimes the line of vehicles stretches several miles and the wait is 90 minutes, long enough for people to call the zoo and complain, or to send angry emails or go on travel websites and post terse reviews.
Those who live along N.C. 159 don’t like it either. The backups make it nearly impossible for them to get into or out of their driveways, and some subdivisions along the route have no other way in or out besides highway 159.
“It’s just a mess,” said Mary Joan Pugh, deputy director at the zoo and interim assistant director at its parent agency, the N.C. Division of Environment and Natural Resources.
Zoo officials and local residents have complained for decades about the problem, which they say would never have occurred if the state had gone ahead with its original plan, from the 1970s, to build a dedicated connector road off U.S. 220 south of Asheboro straight to the zoo entrance. Leaving the zoo and getting back onto U.S. 220, drivers would have been able to reach U.S. 64 to go to restaurants or motels in Asheboro or on to their final destinations.
That plan was abandoned in favor of a dedicated connector off a planned U.S 64 Bypass that would loop around the south side of Asheboro. But the bypass was repeatedly delayed and then, when the $370 million project finally was funded, the plan didn’t include the zoo connector.
“It’s crazy,” said Greg Gallimore, a farmer whose property fronts N.C. 159 and who says he fears a school bus will one day ram his slow-moving equipment on the way to the park. “They built this palace of a zoo,” he said, with state funds and private donations including pennies and nickels collected by children, “and they can’t build a decent road to get people to it. They’ve had 40 years. Why did they put the zoo here if they couldn’t afford to build a few miles of road to get people in and out to see it?”
Zoo and transportation officials have tried to alleviate the problem by installing signs directing drivers to turn left as they leave the zoo, go a couple of miles and get onto U.S. 220.
But when they see the signs, Pugh says, “They whip out their GPS and look at the map and say, ‘This is not how I came in. I’m turning right,’ ” and then they’re snared in that line of cars.
It appeared that a solution was finally on the way when it was announced that the bypass at last would be built. So when DOT revealed the maps last year and the zoo connector wasn’t in the plan, the zoo and its neighbors began to complain as loudly as the drivers stuck in their cars with tired, hungry toddlers after a day in the park.
In response, the DOT came out in late 2014 with a plan for a modified zoo connector, a new, dedicated road that would carry traffic from the U.S. 64 Bypass part of the way to the zoo, but then deposit it back onto two-lane N.C. 159 for the last mile. The DOT would build a roundabout at the zoo entrance to keep traffic moving along N.C. 159.
But the park and the residents say this is only a partial fix, and that it would make the problem worse for those living along N.C. 159 south of where the connector joins it.
Derrick Weaver, a DOT engineer working on the U.S. 64 Bypass, said last week that designers are trying to see if there is a better solution that can be built with the funding that has been allocated. Department officials will meet with the zoo on Tuesday to discuss alternatives.
“We’re listening,” Weaver said. “And we’re working on it.”