Mount Airy officials gave a lukewarm response Thursday night to a plan that could mean the removal of traffic lights at three downtown intersections.
The city Board of Commissioners had been asked at its last meeting on Aug. 3 to consider taking down the signals where Franklin Street, Moore Avenue and Oak Street converge with North Main Street, the primary route through downtown Mount Airy.
That request, involving replacing the lights with stop signs, came unexpectedly during a public forum of that meeting. And when gathering again Thursday night, council members got a full-scale presentation from Lizzie Morrison, coordinator of the Mount Airy Downtown group that spearheads revitalization projects here.
Morrison explained that the overall purpose is to make the central business district “more walkable” — a “pedestrian-first downtown.”
That is not occurring under the present setup that encourages drivers to hurry along North Main — a two-lane, one-way street — to get through the lights at the three intersections.
“We see cars speeding through downtown on a daily basis,” Morrison said.
She told city officials Thursday night that Mount Airy Downtown is recommending that a study be done to determine if removing the stoplights and replacing those devices with two-way, or possibly three-way, stop signs is feasible.
Morrison said that idea dates to 2014 when a resource team composed of individuals with firsthand experience and expertise on practices that can make downtown settings more vibrant paid a visit to Mount Airy to explore such changes.
There are several pluses to doing away with the stoplights at the three intersections, Morrison said, which includes the fact that drivers would be forced to stop at each one rather than speeding through traffic lights.
This also allows motorists to notice business while they are stopped, and makes crossing streets safer for pedestrians who seemingly have more time to do so. Their safety could be further enhanced with the installation of “bump-outs,” which are designed to shorten the crossing distance and improve visibility of drivers and pedestrians at busy intersections — typically involving extending the sidewalk.
Morrison said downtown walkability is increasing in demand with more people living there, as evidenced by 16 new residential units added in just the past year and the possibility of 67 upscale apartments occurring through the Spencer’s redevelopment.
It is not enough to encourage walkability, she said — people must see it as a useful, safe, enjoyable, appealing practice.
In addition to safety, the concept can greatly increase business growth, she said, citing positive results in two communities that have adopted stoplight changes similar to what is being considered here: West Jefferson and Sanford.
Morrison showed a short video during her presentation containing testimonials from business leaders in West Jefferson about how the change led to “astounding” economic-development benefits.
“And it’s generated a new energy in their downtown district,” she said of the Ashe County town.
“We’re just asking to study these intersections and to get the ball rolling on this,” Morrison told city officials on behalf of downtown leaders.
She suggested that blinking red lights might be installed temporarily as the change is evaluated to simulate what the stop signs would accomplish.
“We can’t say whether the stop signs are going to work better,” said the downtown coordinator, who believes professionals on the city staff such as police are equipped to study the matter.
Acknowledging that there would be a cost involved with the changeover, Morrison said grants are available for such projects through agencies including the N.C. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Morrison said downtown leaders weren’t asking for “immediate action” as far as a change, just a study.
And if the stoplight removal is determined to be not feasible, Mount Airy Downtown will drop the issue, she said.
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley did not seem convinced Thursday night that what works in a smaller town such as West Jefferson would be successful in Mount Airy, a larger place with much more traffic.
Morrison countered that by pointing to the success of stoplight removal in Sanford, a city of about 30,000 residents where there was opposition to the switchover at first. “But it actually has improved traffic flow.”
Brinkley also questioned the idea that motorists would have more time to notice businesses while they are stopped. The South Ward commissioner said she visited downtown and observed plenty of drivers looking around while waiting at traffic lights for a minute or more.
“I just want to have as much information as possible,” Brinkley said, before making a change some consider radical.
Mayor David Rowe, a longtime official of a construction company whose projects have included building roads, also questioned the stoplight removal and related changes along North Main Street.
“It’s a matter of space,” Rowe said, pointing out that the street is only 40-some feet wide.
“Not to pour cold water on it (the idea),” he continued, “in West Jefferson the street is 62 feet wide.”
No action on the plan was taken by the commissioners Thursday night.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.