State transportation engineers released a new plan Monday for a long-awaited connector road they say will alleviate traffic jams and improve safety for visitors to the N.C. Zoo and for those who live near the popular park outside Asheboro.
The latest iteration of the zoo connector, which will run between the zoo and the planned U.S. 64 Bypass south of Asheboro, is the one the state Department of Transportation will put out to bid this spring. It will take most zoo traffic off N.C. 159, a winding two-lane rural route lined with dozens of houses.
On the zoo’s busiest days, N.C. 159 gets overwhelmed, especially in the evening when thousands of vehicles try to leave the park at the same time. Though signs direct them left out of the zoo toward four-lane U.S. 220, 3 miles away, most drivers try to go out the way they came in, via N.C. 159 back to U.S. 64 that runs through Asheboro.
At the intersection of N.C. 159 and U.S. 64, left-turning vehicles sometimes back up several miles toward the zoo.
When the zoo was built in the 1970s, the plan was to have a limited-access connector road off of U.S. 220 south of Asheboro. That plan was abandoned in favor of a connector road off the U.S. 64 Bypass, a road that has taken decades to get funded.
When the $370 million bypass finally was funded, it did not include the connector road. After complaints from the zoo and those who live along N.C. 159, the state added the connector back in, but only partially. Zoo traffic still would have had to travel the last mile along existing N.C. 159.
After hearing more complaints, engineers designed this route, which creates a new road all the way from the zoo to U.S. 64. Drivers will be able to get off the connector onto N.C. 159 and go directly to Asheboro if they like. South of that point, N.C. 159 will be a dead-end road for local traffic only.
Greg Gallimore, who lives on N.C. 159, is one of several residents who complained that zoo traffic posed a danger to them and to the park’s visitors. He feared an activity bus would one day slam into the back of one of his farm vehicles as he tried to pull onto the road.
The new route will bisect Gallimore’s cattle farm. He’s disappointed to lose his land, he said, “But I told the engineers: You just saved somebody’s life.”
The Transportation Department plans to open bids for the project in May and award the contract in June.