It’s said that nothing is certain but death and taxes — but steadily increasing traffic on the U.S. 601 (Rockford Street) business corridor through Mount Airy, and accompanying problems such as crashes, could be added to the list.
With an average daily count of 29,000 vehicles per day noted in 2016 — and growing — the N.C. Department of Transportation is poised to initiate major improvements on the congested stretch. This will mean a radical change from what now exists along the local roadway, although the exact plan that will be implemented has yet to be chosen.
“It’s going to be on the edge of a traditional median corridor or a superstreet,” DOT congestion management engineer Jim Dunlop told city officials during a recent update on the U.S. 601 improvement effort.
It targets the roughly one-mile section of Rockford Street (U.S. 601) from its intersection with U.S. 52 to SR 1365 (Forrest Drive) near Walmart, where an influx of new restaurants and other businesses have sprouted in recent years.
In 2010, the daily traffic count there was 25,000 vehicles, and the number is expected to reach 37,000 per day by 2040.
The plan for a median to help deal with the heavy traffic would involve a raised concrete divider being installed along the four-lane roadway, replacing the present two-way left-turn lane setup now afforded by a center lane. This would force motorists to make U-turns to reach a business on the opposite side of the street from where they are traveling.
Meanwhile, the “superstreet” concept is similar, but would affect how traffic enters U.S. 601 from adjoining streets, including prohibiting crossing 601 from such a street to reach the other side of the same street. While drivers on 601 could make direct left turns onto cross-streets, through traffic and left turns would not be possible for those on cross-streets, who would use directional U-turn crossovers to reach a desired destination.
This design “removes conflicts” at intersections, Dunlop said, and can include traffic signals on opposite sides of the major highway operating independently.
The DOT representative told the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners and Mayor David Rowe that a decision on the concept for the U.S. 601 project will come “pretty soon” after further study. He said this should occur sometime next year in light of the right-of-way phase for the project being set for 2019.
While a decision has not been made on converting U.S. 601 into a superstreet, “that’s one of the things we will consider,” Dunlop added of selecting it over the median option.
“It looks like there’s enough right of way out there, enough property, to do either project.”
The project is scheduled to go out for construction bids in June 2020. Funding for the work estimated to cost $6.7 million was approved in August as part of the State Transportation Improvement Program, a list of long-range efforts to occur from 2018-2027.
Another DOT official previously has said that local stakeholders will have a chance for input on the final plan, including a public hearing process.
Though city officials and members of the local business community have in the past voiced dissatisfaction about a median placed in the center of U.S. 601, Dunlop defends that concept for safety and other reasons.
“A median has safety benefits and advantages in all conditions,” the DOT congestion management engineer said.
One problem with the present two-way left-turn lane configuration is “a lot of movement,” Dunlop said. “It’s not controlled by anything other than paint” — the lines on the pavement.
Traffic enters the highway from all directions and promotes crashes from multiple angles, including T-bone collisions that result in the most fatalities and severe injuries. Studies have shown that converting to a median can reduce the crash rate by 37 percent, according to the DOT.
A 2001 study from Florida which Dunlop cited in his presentation determined that U-turns are 25 percent safer than a direct left turn from a side street or other access point.
He said the median plan also would safeguard pedestrians on U.S. 601, who face difficulties crossing the existing five lanes of travel. “A median would provide that protection.”
A constant complaint with medians is that they adversely impact businesses along a route because of making it harder for motorists to access establishments, such as requiring U-turns.
However, studies have shown that businesses do as well or better after medians are added, Dunlop said, noting a possible exception of convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. “Those types of businesses will receive some impact, but for the most part they don’t.”
Along with safety, there is a beautification aspect to consider. “A median also offers some aesthetic improvement benefits or opportunities,” Dunlop said.
The DOT representative did hint that shifting to a superstreet or similar design along U.S. 601 will generate some opposition due to such a major change being involved:
“It’s a different concept than the public is used to, so there are some disagreements.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.