Abernethy Laurels challenges DOT

A local retirement community is voicing concern about plans to expand N.C. 16 to four lanes.

Officials from United Church Homes and Services and Abernethy Laurels said Monday the proposed divided highway will create significant safety hazards for many individuals for a variety of reasons.

The next phase of the decade-long N.C. 16 widening project will expand the two-lane portion of N.C. 16 north of Tower Road to Claremont Road to four lanes. Most of the 8.2-mile stretch of highway will have a median separating the north and south directions.

The median will have periodic breaks for left turns, but will not have a break in front of Abernethy Laurels’ two entrances. A continuous median means that seniors living at Abernethy, emergency management vehicles and visitors will have to travel down N.C. 16, make a U-turn and drive backwards to enter the facilities.

“Many of the residents who are an average age of over 80 still operate motor vehicles and drive in and out of the campus,” said Joy Cline, senior director of marketing for United Church Homes and Services. “Friends and family members of the 400 residents drive in or out of the community on a regular basis, as well.”

Limited access for emergency management vehicles that frequent the community is another issue that a continuous median and four-lane road would pose for Abernethy.

“Emergency management vehicles will not have direct left turn access into our campus if the crossover lane is filled with other cars waiting to turn left,” Cline said. “We think that delayed response could make a difference in saving a life.”

The N.C. Department of Transportation held an informational session earlier this month to answer the community’s questions and concerns about the next phase of the N.C. 16 widening project. NCDOT Project Development Engineer Zahid Baloch said project engineers are still evaluating citizen comments, such as Abernethy’s concerns about vehicle access.

“Once we go to the public, there is a 30-day period for comment,” Baloch said. “The design team then sits down, and we see where we can go.”

Baloch said in Abernethy’s situation, EMS vehicles would still be able to have easy access to the facilities through unpaved openings in the median.

“We will look into that, and I guess that would be a design call at the end of the day, which option is better,” Baloch said.

The problem with having too many median breaks is the potential for accidents. Baloch said when drivers are forced to turn across two, or maybe three lanes of traffic, the potential for wrecks increases.

“I presume there would be a lot of traffic at (Abernethy),” Baloch said. “If there are a lot of left turns there, we may have more accidents there.”

Baloch’s presumptions are correct. Abernethy has about 400 residents over the age of 65, in addition to about 300 employees that drive in and out of the facilities year-round.

The campus also has a community center, which is home to a fitness facility, bistro and large multi-purpose room. The multi-purpose room is used by the general public, too, Cline said.

Cline said United Church Homes and Services wants the NCDOT to reconsider their plan.

“UCHS recommends that the NCDOT continue the five-lane highway east beyond the UCHS Campus and install a traffic light at the entrance as opposed to the proposed divided highway,” Cline said. “We recommend the traffic light be installed at the main entrance to the campus as opposed to using the service entrance road where the divided highway proposes to route traffic.”

Baloch said the NCDOT will receive comments officially until July 6 and will meet to redesign shortly after.