Citizens plead case to NCDOT

Udean Burke has 42 Prevost motorcoach buses at Christian Tours on N.C. 16. Each of them is 45 feet long.
Currently, when one of Burke’s fleet heads toward Newton, they simply take a left out of the Christian Tours parking lot and drive a few miles into town — no problem.
However, plans are in the mix to widen N.C. 16 as North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) officials want to make the highway four lanes with a median separating the north and south directions.
A median in front of Burke’s Christian Tours property means his fleet will no longer be able to make a left turn toward Newton. So, instead of a “simple” left turn, Burke said his 45-foot-long motorcoaches will be forced to make a right out of his property, drive toward Mt. Anderson Baptist Church, which is .8 miles away and make a u-turn at the first possibility — a 45-foot-long u-turn during 65 mph highway traffic.
“They are going to have to give me a u-turn lane, and I’m going to be suing for years to come if they don’t,” said Burke, who owns about 16,000 feet of road-front property along N.C. 16.
Flocks of area citizens with stories like Burke’s visited the Catawba County Library in Newton on Monday to talk with NCDOT engineers about their questions and concerns with the next phase of the N.C. 16 widening project.
The next phase, expected to start June 2013 with buying, will expand the two-lane portion of N.C. 16 from 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.  
Large-scale maps covered the walls of the library conference room Monday, so area citizens could pick out their home or business along the highway and ask a nearby engineer a question. While inquiries varied, NCDOT engineer Zahid Baloch said most upset citizens had questions about the median.
“They were anticipating this to come, but they are a little confused how they are going to make a u-turn,” Baloch said. “Once we explain it, though, most of the people are OK with it.”
The median, which will cause more “jug handle” u-turns, will also force the highway further onto residential and commercial properties.
Baloch said the median is necessary because it will be unsafe for citizens to “make a left across a four-lane road.”
“You’re going 60 mph, and you make a left-hand turn,” Baloch said. “That’s not safe at all.”
David Weathers, of Newton, owns property on N.C. 16 that he was planning to commercialize when the new highway went to four-lanes. Yet after hearing about the plans for the median, he is unsure how successful a business can be.
“When 16 goes commercial, it would be a perfect opportunity for a commercial property like a real-estate property,” Weathers said. “But to establish business, I need north and south access.”
Like Weathers, Roy Either’s future business plans were put on hold after it was unclear whether the property he purchased at 2525 N.C. 16 would be in the way of the new road. Either bought the property looking to develop, but ran into a “snag” when it was unclear where the new highway was going.
“My engineer basically came to a standstill,” Either said. “I knew roughly where they were going to take the road, but the wheels of the DOT move pretty slow, and until they have (information sessions), you’re left in the dark. I’m not going to build something and then tear it right back down.”
After being “left in the dark” for about six months, Either said he spoke with a NCDOT representative at the information session and can now “get the ball rolling.”
But many citizens were not like Either and left the meeting with the same complaints and concerns about the N.C. 16 plans that they came to the workshop with. Plans that NCDOT engineer Christopher Lee said are not final.
“These are preliminary designs,” Lee said. “Citizens make comments, and we answer them if whether or not we can change anything.”
Though he said changes can be made to some portions of the design, Lee made it clear that one thing is final.
“The median is definitely going to happen,” Lee said. “A divided facility is a lot safer than a three-lane or five-lane section.”