Sides divided on N.C. 16 widening plan

After reviewing nearly 100 public comments about the controversial widening of N.C. 16, the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) has updated its plans.

They didn’t change much.

DOT says it will widen the two-lane, eight-mile stretch of highway from Claremont Road in Newton to Tower Road in Denver to a four-lane divided highway with “superstreet” intersections.

Despite vocal concern from area residents and a push for a five-lane, undivided highway, the DOT has stuck with its “superstreet” design since it unveiled preliminary sketches in June. The department says the design, which relies less on traffic signals and stop signs and more on U-turns, is far safer than undivided highways with “suicide lanes.”

The department has, however, made small plan adjustments to address a medley of written and vocal concerns about the project.

Abernethy Laurels

After receiving written concerns from about 61 residents, officials and supporters of the Abernethy Laurels Retirement Community in Newton, the DOT says it will provide a left turn and emergency-accessible median in front of the facility.

Since the N.C. 16 project was unveiled, most concern has stemmed from Abernethy Laurels, a retirement community along the highway that serves more than 400 elderly citizens.

Concerned officials said the planned work would cause public safety issues along access points to Abernethy Laurels and would force elderly drivers to make “dangerous” U-turns to get into the complex. They wanted to see the continuation of a five-lane, undivided highway in front of the complex, with a traffic signal at the facility’s main entrance.

After meeting with the DOT and sending written comments, however, Abernethy’s request was denied. DOT officials said the “superstreet” design is safer and would allow a left turn into the complex, build accessible medians for emergency vehicles, but not grant an undivided highway.

DOT also said all of its left turns will be considered for traffic signals, but it has not committed to installing one in front of Abernethy’s.

“We are appreciative of the NCDOT for meeting with United Church Homes & Services (UCHS), Abernethy Laurels and members of the city of Newton on our concerns over the widening of N.C. 16. We are disappointed that it didn’t change the outcome,” said Joy Cline, vice president of marketing and communications for UCHS. “Our focus and priority remains with the safety of our residents, staff and visitors to our community, and we are dissatisfied with the NCDOT’s decision.”

Newton officials, who backed Abernethy’s disapproval of the plan, also feel other design options would have been the safest route.

“I think that having a signal light would have been a better alternative, but I’m not an engineer,” said Newton City Manager Todd Clark. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the final say, the state does. We have to trust their research is sound. They may not be what we agree with or like, but we have to accept it.”

DOT Traffic Congestion Engineer Jim Dunlop says the “superstreet” design is a statistically and logically safer option.

He said the superstreet is safer and more efficient because it reduces possible collision points and eliminates cars coming from multiple directions. One of the NCDOT’s first superstreets was on N.C. 87 in eastern North Carolina. Three years before the superstreet was installed, there were 24 crashes on N.C. 87 with 21 injuries. Three years after the superstreets were installed, there were two crashes with no injuries.

Burke Christian Tours
After voicing concern over the DOT’s plans and even drawing up its own, Burke Christian Tours will not get the access it wants to its property along N.C. 16.

Christian Tours has been concerned about the entry, exit and U-turn accessibility of its more than 40 motor coaches since the widening plans were unveiled earlier this year.

Christian Tours owner Udean Burke said the U-turns his buses will have to make will cause a greater safety issue than the DOT providing a left, and right, turn out of his property.

The DOT isn’t buying the argument. It will provide a left turn into the Christian Tours property; however, no left turn will be provided from the property onto N.C. 16 because of “safety concerns,” according to the DOT.

Bike and pedestrian lanes
As requested by the city of Newton, 14-foot-wide outside lanes will be used to accommodate bicycles on N.C. 16 from Claremont Road to Balls Creek Road, according to the DOT.