NCDOT quells concerns over N.C. 16

Emergency responders and business owners came to a meeting with the NCDOT with concerns on Monday, but left feeling a lot better after hearing explanations and potential changes to the N.C. 16 widening project.

State officials came to Catawba County on Monday to try and quell public concern about a controversial plan to widen a portion of N.C. 16 in eastern Catawba County.

NCDOT officials listened to questions and concerns from area emergency responders and business owners alike Monday and explained to them why a four-lane divided highway that relies heavily on U-turns is the best option for the two-lane portion of N.C. 16 that spans from Denver to Claremont Road in Newton.

The NCDOT wants to widen the currently two-lane portion of N.C. 16 to prepare for a projected increase in traffic in the future. The widening will also connect to a soon-to-be-opened section of N.C. 16 that will decrease travel time to Charlotte – making the state highway “an alternative to Interstate 77,” officials said.

But N.C. 16 residents, emergency responders and business owners have voiced concerns with the plans since they were unveiled in May. The main gripes with the plan revolve around its reliance on U-turns, which concerned parties say will eliminate most left turns on the road and make travel less convenient as well as more dangerous. The concerned parties, made up of N.C. 16 property owners, business owners and emergency personnel, mostly wanted a continuation of a five-lane highway.

On Monday, NCDOT officials and concerned parties gathered at Friendship United Methodist Church in Newton to discuss the plan and its future.

NCDOT traffic congestion engineer Jim Dunlop was quick to address the “U-turn” problem that most citizens had gripes with. He said a five-lane highway, an alternative to the NCDOT’s suggested plan, has proven to be dangerous over the years.

“Over time, we have gotten a lot of data that a five-lane section is not the safest – it’s probably one of the most dangerous,” Dunlop said.

“People are coming from everywhere on a five-lane highway, and it’s uncontrolled.”

Dunlop said NCDOT’s suggested plan for N.C. 16 is a “superstreet,” a four-lane highway with a median in the middle that relies on U-turns.

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.
Though NCDOT defended its plan Monday, officials made it clear that changes can still be made. After Bandys Fire Department Chief Jason Drum voiced concern on Monday about how the new highway will affect emergency responders’ ability to respond to calls, NCDOT Division 12 Engineer Mike Holder said their plans are just drafts and may be changed.

Holder also said that the median that will divide the highway is easily mountable by emergency response vehicles responding to a call. Also, the U-turn areas along the superstreet will have extended areas for turning – allowing large vehicles like a fire tanker or transfer truck to make the turn successfully.

Holder continued to say that if there is 80 percent agreement among the NCDOT and concerned parties, then that’s better than nothing at all.

“We are not going to satisfy everyone, and I’m not here to do that,” Holder said. “At the same time, these plans are our first stab at it, and the maps we put in place at the public event are just drafts. It’s a work in progress, and we are just in part one of many.”

Bad for business

Some business owners, such as Christian Tours Owner Udeen Burke, was not happy with the plan even after hearing from NCDOT officials.

Burke’s Christian Tours property lines N.C. 16 and has more than 40 motorcoaches that are 45-foot long that come and go from Burke’s property daily. A Christian Tours employee gave a presentation at Friendship on Monday that estimated about 67,724 vehicles coming in and out of the property annually.

The superstreet’s median would not allow all those vehicles to make left turns out of his property, which would cause a traffic fiasco, Burke said. Regardless of what the NCDOT says, Burke is not convinced the new road will be able to support the traffic – or his 45-foot motorcoaches.

“I don’t care what anyone says, it’s going to have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to convince me that one of my motorcoaches can make that turn,” he said.