All summer long, survey crews have occupied the Rockford Street area in Mount Airy, where temporary orange signs have appeared and disappeared while continually warning motorists of “survey work ahead” and informing them where it stops.
Well, all this is not for show — it is being done for a reason, and that is to prepare for a major upgrade of Rockford Street (U.S. 601) from its intersection with U.S. 52 to SR 1365 (Forrest Drive) near Walmart by the N.C. Department of Transportation.
“This project is to do what we call a superstreet project for U.S. 601,” explained Dean Ledbetter, senior planning engineer for the DOT’s Division 11, an eight-county area that includes Surry. “The intent of that project would be to improve the safety and efficiency of that highway.”
Funding for the planned upgrade of the four-lane roadway is included in the State Transportation Improvement Program, a list of long-range projects from 2018-2027 which received final approval earlier this month. The total cost of the Rockford Street work is listed as $6.7 million, with the city of Mount Airy required to spend about $1.25 million.
In 2015, $500,000 was allocated for preliminary engineering costs for the upgrade.
The survey crews that have been prevalent along Rockford Street since early June essentially are laying the groundwork for the project, for which construction is set to begin in 2020. Right-of-way acquisition is slated for 2019.
“One of the biggest challenges there is going to be utility relocation,” Ledbetter said.
With a steady influx of new restaurants and other businesses along the one-mile stretch of Rockford Street from U.S. 52 to Walmart over the years, it has become one of the busiest routes in Mount Airy.
Traffic has steadily increased there and is only going to get worse, based on state statistics.
A 2010 traffic study by the N.C. Department of Transportation showed that 25,000 vehicles per day passed along the section of U.S. 601 from the U.S. 52 intersection to Forrest Drive across from Walmart. That number is expected to reach 37,000 per day by 2040, which begs a solution to handle the additional volume and safety problems presented.
“Just going out there and widening the lanes isn’t going to make any improvement at this point,” Ledbetter said in recently outlining what’s planned for Rockford Street.
That’s where the “superstreet” concept will play a role, a design previously employed in other cities.
It typically refers to a type of arrangement along a roadway such as Rockford Street in which minor cross-street traffic is prohibited from going straight through or left at a divided highway intersection.
Minor cross traffic wanting to go left would be forced to turn right, but could then access a U-turn to proceed in the desired direction.
As part of that approach, a raised concrete median is to be installed in the center of the roadway along Rockford Street in the project area.
The idea is to change the street pattern so that traffic is “broken into movements,” said Ledbetter, who added that businesses along the street will still have direct access to Rockford.
A free-for-all-type situation now exists along Rockford Street, which allows motorists in either direction to make turns onto streets or business driveways by simply entering the center lane of travel.
While U.S. 52 is a busier highway, access to it is limited, whereas along Rockford Street the presence of numerous businesses and other entities is accompanied by virtually unchecked access that increases the chances for accidents.
Superstreets are believed to reduce the likelihood of crashes, especially severe accidents such as side collisions, and there are fewer threats to pedestrians crossing the roadway.
Raised median resurrected
If the term raised median sounds familiar to local citizens, it might be because it became the subject of a mini-controversy in Mount Airy around 2012 when city officials gave their blessing to long-range road plans by the DOT.
That included the project to improve the U.S. 601 business corridor from U.S. 52 toward Walmart.
After complaints from citizens and city commissioners about the median proposal, including concerns about a possible adverse impact on businesses, the commissioners voted to endorse the DOT’s long-range plans — minus the median.
A motion approved by the board of commissioners in January 2012 recognized that the often-congested portion of Rockford Street would require some remedy in the future. But the motion stated that the median proposal should be dropped for the time being pending further design studies which could produce another solution.
Since then, the median concept has made its way back into the Rockford Street upgrade plan, with Ledbetter saying it was officially approved for inclusion.
He indicated that the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, a group representing local government units including Mount Airy on transportation and other issues, had a hand in recommending the project as it now stands.
Before it begins, meetings will be held with local officials and there will be opportunities for public input in the process, according to Ledbetter.
He said an engineering firm is to be contracted at some point to lay out the final design.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.