Friday, June 14, 2024

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Options for widening Alamance Road previewed: median or no median; & how many lanes?


North Carolina’s department of transportation has rolled out a new set of plans to widen and reconfigure a one-mile stretch of Alamance Road between Ramada Road and the intersection of South Church Street.

The DOT had previously been knee-deep in this project’s design phase when it abruptly put the brakes on its work due to statewide budget constraints in the summer of 2019. Since then, the state agency has decided to dust off these plans – albeit with some significant adjustments that it now wants to share with the general public.

The revised plans for this project received a rather mixed reaction last week when officials with the state agency road tested the changes with Burlington’s city council. The council’s members ultimately spent the better part of half an hour scrutinizing the amended designs when they were unveiled during a monthly work session last Monday.

Chris Smitherman, a design construction engineer with the DOT’s highway division, provided a rundown of this project’s development when he and two of his colleagues appeared at the work session.

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“This project has been around for a while,” Smitherman said at the time. “We started doing some studies and public outreach back in 2017, and the last official public map that we had shown was in April of 2018…Since that time, we’ve had numerous interactions with the community that have driven us to the two options we have now.”

Smitherman noted that the DOT still wants to alter the five-lane configuration that currently exists between Ramada Road and South Mebane Street. Rob Weisz, a project engineer for the state’s transportation department, informed the council that the DOT has some serious misgivings about this layout due to the large number of accidents that have occurred along this particular stretch.

“In fact, it’s three times higher than the state average for a similar corridor,” he said during the work session. “From a safety and operational standpoint, a median is needed, and it’s going to help the traffic flow better.”

In order to curb the accident rate in this area, the DOT proposes to replace the road’s center turn lane with a median that, in the project’s original iteration, would’ve run continuously for much of its span. The latest proposal calls for a number of breaks in the median to facilitate left turns while, at the same time, reducing “the number of conflict points” to avoid accidents.

Smitherman said that the DOT has inserted these some of these breaks in the proposed median to assuage individual property owners. He conceded that one gap in the concrete is meant to accommodate customers of the Biscuitville restaurant along Alamance Road. Yet, the inclusion of these periodic left turn lanes still didn’t eliminate the bad taste which the proposed median has left for Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler.

“I’m concerned about that median there,” Butler told the DOT’s representatives, “and I will be the first to admit that I have some self-interest because there’s a car dealership that I’m involved in.”

Butler went on to recall that Mike Mills, the now-retired division engineer who formerly headed the DOT’s 7th Highway Division, had previously forsworn the median entirely due to its unpopularity with business owners.

“No matter where you put the median,” the mayor added, “it’s going to have a negative impact on the surrounding businesses.”

The NCDOT has unveiled two options for a plan to widen and reconfigure a mile-long stretch of Alamance Road. One option (top) calls for two travel lanes and a center turn lane between Trail Six and Lacy Street. The other (bottom) envisions two travel lanes and a median along the same stretch of roadway. Both options propose a roundabout at the Lacy Street intersection and a median with sporadic breaks to accommodate left turns along the five lane stretch near Alamance Road’s interchange with I-85/40.

Butler went on to admit that the road’s current configuration creates nightmarish congestion as it approaches the interchange with I-85/40. He nevertheless argued that these traffic jams could be eliminated by an interchange at Tucker Street – a proposal that has previously been an utter nonstarter with the state’s transportation department.

Under the DOT’s latest plans for the project, the proposed median would continue for at least one block beyond South Mebane Street until it reaches Alamance Road’s intersection with Trail Six. From there to the intersection with Lacy Street, the state agency has floated two competing proposals. One option calls for one lane in either direction with an unbroken median to prevent vehicles from turning left. The other option substitutes a center turn lane for the proposed median. Both of these options call for a roundabout at the intersection with Lacy Street to provide vehicles with an alternative to the perilous left turn.

When asked to evaluate these competing options, Smitherman admitted that either of them would reduce vehicle crashes, which he added aren’t as much of a problem in this area as they are in the vicinity of Ramada Road. Smitherman also conceded that a three-lane configuration would be cheaper to build.

The DOT’s original plans for this project had called for a complete relocation of Alamance Road as it approaches the intersection with South Church Street. Under those plans, the whole throughfare would have been rerouted to west so that it empties into South Church Street at the South Church Street location of Hursey’s Bar-B-Q. Smitherman conceded that he and his colleagues have since reconsidered this plan in light of discussions with the restaurant’s owner.

“We had talked with the owner of Hursey’s Bar-B-Q about the impacts it would have for him,” he recalled. “We have talked about how to minimize those, and that’s what we have tried to do. It certainly wouldn’t affect the building.”

Smitherman added that the current vision for this intersection with Church Street is to close off a short leg of Trail One that currently intrudes into this already chaotic juncture. This relatively modest change struck councilman Ronnie Wall as a complete departure from what the DOT previously had in mind for this area. “You may make it look a little better,” Wall acknowledged. “But it’s basically the same thing. You’ve really done nothing.”

The DOT’s representatives told the council that they intend to pitch their latest designs at a forthcoming meeting with elected officials before they formally put out the amended designs for public comment. The state’s current plans call for the mandatory public comment period on this project to begin with a virtual public hearing on March 24.

Once the public has weighed in on this project, the DOT will finalize its designs based on the feedback it has received. If all goes according to plan, the state would be able to start acquiring right of way for the project in November of 2023 – with construction tentatively scheduled to start in March of 2025.

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