City clears median hurdle, backs 601 plan

By Tom Joyce -
Traffic backs up along U.S. 601 Monday approaching its intersection with U.S. 52 -

The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners has taken action “proclaiming support” for a state plan to improve the increasingly busy — and sometimes deadly — U.S. 601 corridor in the city.

That proposal for the area between the U.S. 52 intersection and Forrest Drive, the subject of recent public meetings, includes a type of “superstreet,” or synchronized street, concept, prohibiting left turns from side streets onto U.S. 601.

Under that arrangement, motorists instead would be forced to turn right onto the main road and then make U-turns at designated “bulbs” to reach destinations in the opposite direction.

The plan also calls for a raised concrete median to divide the four-lane roadway — replacing a center lane where turns now are made all along the way by traffic from opposite directions using the same space, sometimes resulting in crashes.

While the commissioners unanimously endorsed that plan during a meeting earlier this month, including the raised median, that wasn’t the case in 2012 when city officials specifically rejected the idea of a barrier along 601 due to fears it would adversely affect businesses.

“I’ve been contacted by many business owners, private citizens and concerned users,” Commissioner Dean Brown said at that time regarding those alarmed about the adding of the median. “We will lose businesses if this happens.”

A number of citizens had spoken against the raised median being installed, which some feared would lead to potential customers being reluctant to travel down the street and double back to reach a certain business.

However, the present crop of city leaders, including the majority of commissioners serving in 2012, have reversed themselves with the recent endorsement.

This coincides with conditions becoming more dangerous along U.S. 601 in the intervening years.

“The data has changed, as traffic volumes have grown,” said Teresa Gresham, an engineer and project manager with Kimley-Horn, a Raleigh-based consulting firm assisting the N.C. Department of Transportation with U.S. 601 improvements.

“We do know that the data has changed over six years,” Gresham added Monday.

This has included the half-mile segment of U.S. 601 in question, also known as Rockford Street, establishing a crash rate nearly twice the state average. More than 240 collisions, plus pedestrian-related accidents, occurred there within one recent four-year period. Among these were three fatalities.

Gresham indicated that major traffic changes on state highways running through municipalities are undertaken only with the blessings of officials in those localities. “We’re sensitive to the (governing) board’s input,” she said.

The consultant pointed out that the proposal for U.S. 601 is solidly backed by the present group of city officials and staff members, as evidenced by the commissioners’ recent action declaring their support. “We really can’t speak for what happened six years ago.”

A resolution approved by the city board on June 7 acknowledges safety concerns about the street among Mount Airy officials and the fact that changes to create a safer corridor had been identified and are being recommended.

The resolution also states that municipal representatives will continue discussions with the DOT concerning its assistance in the improvements designed primarily to reduce fatalities, injuries and property damage while providing more efficient and faster traffic flow.

Eliminating the left turns as the proposal prescribes would reduce the potential contact points for traffic along the corridor by more than half, from 32 to 14, planners have said.

A five-foot sidewalk also is proposed on both sides of the roadway along with pedestrian crosswalks.

Another public meeting on the $6 million-plus plan will be held by this fall, with final designs to be prepared in the summer of 2019. Right-of-way acquisition is scheduled to begin during Fiscal Year 2019 and construction, Fiscal Year 2020.

Traffic backs up along U.S. 601 Monday approaching its intersection with U.S. 52 backs up along U.S. 601 Monday approaching its intersection with U.S. 52

By Tom Joyce

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.