A year ago, owners and operators of businesses along U.S. 70 East feared the demise of their establishments if the N.C. Department of Transportation carried out its plan to build a median through the middle of the corridor.
Those fears were not realized, however, as DOT officials announced in a letter last week they were shelving the proposal after further study of crash data.
“With information now available to NCDOT, we do not recommend implementation of the concrete median at this time,” Neil Lassiter, Division Engineer for the DOT’s Division 2 office in Greenville, wrote in a Friday letter to J. Mac Daughety, chairman of the Lenoir County Transportation Committee. “However, we do reserve the right to revisit this section of roadway for further safety improvements if the traffic crash rates trend upward in the future.”
Officials with the DOT began seeking public comment in February of 2011 on a proposal to install the median between the intersections with N.C. 58 South and U.S. 258 South.
The department used data from a 2007 study, which reviewed five prior years of crash patterns, to show a median with a few openings could lead to a safer corridor than its current design, which consists of five open lanes, including a middle turn lane marked by yellow dashed lines that gives access to the restaurants, shops, gas stations and hotels from anywhere along the highway.
Business and property owners liked the existing design and immediately cried foul last year because they feared a median with only a few openings could hinder drivers’ access.
The project was expected to cost nearly $1 million; the DOT originally planned to let the contracts in May of 2011 and finish construction by the end of the year.
It didn’t happen, though; the Lenoir County Transportation Committee passed a resolution against the project, as well as the board of the Kinston-Lenoir County Chamber of Commerce.
The matter also caused intense debate among the members of the Lenoir County Board of Commissioners and Kinston City Council.
Local Reps. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, and William Wainwright, D-Craven, introduced a local bill in the General Assembly to get the project stopped. The legislation did not pass before the 2011 session ended, though.
The DOT announced in June of that year the median project would be pushed back for two years.
Area legislators and city and county officials have continued to work with DOT officials, who hired the Raleigh transportation planning and traffic engineering firm of Martin/Alexiou/Bryson P.C. to conduct further study of traffic data.
The consultants reviewed crash data from Nov. 1, 2006 to Oct. 31, 2011, and calculated a rate of 145.96 crashes per 100 million miles traveled in the section in question. Eighty-six crashes, including one fatal, were recorded during the five-year study period.
Statewide, the average crash rate was 155.47 for similar “Rural US Routes” with more than four lanes and a “Continuous Left-Turn Lane,” the 28-page report stated. A draft copy of the report was released Feb. 16.
“The process worked,” Daughety said Friday.
He said a committee of city, county and DOT officials had been formed to study the median issue — the committee was also charged with selecting an independent consultant, and DOT paid for the study.
“My compliments to DOT,” Daughety said. “Ever since I’ve been involved with transportation, they’ve been honest partners in the process.”
Dwayne Alligood, operations engineer for DOT Division 2 and a member of the committee, said the comparison between the Kinston crash rate and the statewide average for similar roadways was the main factor in the agency’s decision to stop the median project.
He said DOT hopes the crash rate will not climb again, “but at some point in the future if that were to occur, we would want to look at some sort of mitigation measure (for U.S. 70 East).”
Russell Rhodes, president of the Neuse Sport Shop on U.S. 70 East, was a strong voice against the median.
He was Daughety’s predecessor as chairman of the Transportation Committee, but was removed by the county commissioners in March 2011 after Daughety — who was a member at the time — objected after Rhodes traveled to Raleigh to share his concerns over the median project with House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and top DOT officials.
“The outcome is the right outcome, and I’m glad that it happened,” Rhodes said Friday.
He also issued a press release.
“I am proud of DOT for reconsidering this project,” Rhodes stated. “It shows me that there are some independent thinkers in DOT willing to ask themselves challenging questions and to think critically before acting.”
He went on to thank state legislators, the Kinston mayor and City Council, county commissioners, the members of the Transportation Committee and the Chamber of Commerce for their support of businesses along the highway.
Kinston Mayor B.J. Murphy also weighed in.
“DOT has made the right call on this issue,” he wrote in an email. “We are all better off without that median. And I would like to thank Russell Rhodes for continuing to stand up for what was right, even in spite of undue past public criticism.”
David Anderson can be reached at 252-559-1077 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at DavidFreePress.