Traveling along North Main Street could change greatly under a N.C. Department of Transportation plan presented Thursday night during a Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting.
It would involve reducing the lanes of travel from four to two, while adding a center turn lane and bike lanes on either side, on the section of North Main that runs from Lebanon Street to Independence Boulevard.
That same configuration also could eventually be extended south along Renfro Street to Pine Street and from there on to the Ararat River bridge on South Main Street, according to the presentation by the DOT’s Dean Ledbetter. Though in the city limits, that corridor is maintained by the state.
Ledbetter, a traffic engineer for the state agency’s Division 11 — which includes Surry County — said cutting the travel lanes from two to four would lower speeds along the area targeted, reduce accidents and make travel safer. Pedestrian safety around First Baptist Church and Reeves Community Center has been of particular concern in recent years.
However, the plan was greeted by questions from city officials Thursday night, including Commissioner Dean Brown, who questioned whether it would slow down traffic to an unreasonable level and cause bottlenecks.
Brown, who lives on the northern end of Mount Airy, said he often encounters older drivers when heading toward the center of the town, even clocking one person going only 12 miles per hour. He said anyone trailing behind them on the two-lane portion of North Main Street is basically held hostage until the road becomes four lanes at the Lebanon Street intersection.
“I’m always thankful,” Brown said, when “I can pass these people.”
But that opportunity would be eliminated under the change proposed by the DOT.
The motivation for it surrounds plans by the state agency to resurface North Main Street from Lebanon Street to Independence Boulevard, which Ledbetter said is scheduled in August. It is an ideal time to implement traffic changes when streets are resurfaced and new striping must be applied.
“We have an opportunity to try it on and see if it fits,” Ledbetter said.
The DOT official explained that the reason for the proposal being limited to the Lebanon Street-to-Independence-Boulevard portion at this time is because the other sections leading to the Ararat River bridge aren’t scheduled for repaving. Having funding available is among the factors affecting that.
Ledbetter said a similar pattern was implemented on East Atkins Street entering Dobson, which also had four lanes, but now has two with a center turn lane as well as space for biking. Elkin officials also are wanting the same configuration for North Bridge Street in that town.
In addition to safety, the change would allow for aesthetic enhancements along North Main and the placement of “pedestrian refuge islands” along the way to aid people crossing the street.
Ledbetter said Thursday night that while biking lanes are part of the plan, the intent is not to promote bicycle use although the new configuration would better enable citizens to do that as well as walk.
“We feel like we really just need something to take up space,” the traffic engineer advised city officials concerning the bike lanes envisioned on both sides of the roadway. “It is a logical place to expect some bikes, but I don’t want you to think of this as a bike plan.”
Ledbetter said the proposal is feasible unless there is a huge increase in traffic volume for the area in question. “The (projected) traffic volume shows this will work capacity-wise.”
He added that its biggest drawback would be increasing wait times for people trying to pull into the street from driveways. But doing so will be safer, because “you’re not trying to judge the speed of cars in two lanes,” just one.
Traffic backups at intersections also are not viewed as a problem, the DOT representative said. It is estimated that 95 percent of vehicles waiting at a stoplight would be able to get through when the light changes to green.
“We’re not backing up people for three or four cycles.”
However, Brown said that in addition to slowing down traffic, he is concerned about the presence of First Baptist Church and a nearby funeral home, where space problems could be posed when funerals are held.
“There’s two or three funerals a week right there in that section,” he said.
Brown also expressed concern about the effect on traffic at peak times, including those heading to schools in the morning. “There’s still a lot of questions in my mind.”
Commissioner Jon Cawley also asked Ledbetter if the plan was part of an overall objective by the DOT to force people to walk.
Ledbetter replied that while it would make it easier for people to walk or ride bicycles, safer conditions for drivers are expected as well. The change would reduce rear-end collisions and those resulting from drivers changing lanes, he said.
However, in response to a question about the present accident situation along the section targeted, Police Chief Dale Watson said “it’s not a prominent issue.”
Ledbetter stressed that the DOT is not trying to “push” the plan on Mount Airy, but is just suggesting a change it believes would be an improvement.
City Manager Barbara Jones said at this point that the city government will seek input from affected businesses and others along the route, as well as citizens in general before taking formal action. No public hearing is planned, however.
Mayor Deborah Cochran said a vote is expected at the commissioners’ next meeting on Aug. 2.
Also Thursday night, the city board:
• Voted unanimously to request the N.C. Department of Transportation to undertake three projects: improvements to pedestrian-crossing areas at Reeves Community Center, between Cherry and East Pine streets; the railway crossing at the Rockford Street-U.S. 52 intersection, where problems have been reported with a slick surface; and the pedestrian-crossing at the intersection of Independence Boulevard and North Main Street.
They would be funded with $175,000 in discretionary funds made available from the N.C. Senate last year which originally were intended for safety improvements at the intersection of U.S. 601 and McKinney Road near the Interstate 74 interchange.
However, the Sheetz company financed that work when developing its new store in that area, thus freeing up the $175,000 for other projects.
• Awarded a $31,500 contract to a Charlotte-based firm to develop a comprehensive pedestrian plan for Mount Airy. It will be financed with a $22,050 grant awarded by the DOT and a $9,450 allocation from the municipality.
Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc., a firm founded by two traffic engineers in 1967 which was awarded the contract, will help the city map out its pedestrian-related needs on a long-term basis. This is to include assessing present facilities and identifying others that might be needed.
Officials have said the plan is aimed at making walking a more viable transportation option for local citizens, while improving community health through increased physical activity.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.