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3/7/2019 9:19:00 PM
Possible N.C. 68 roundabouts draw mixed views in Oak Ridge
More than 120 people attended a NCDOT meeting to look at two maps - one showing traffic circles as an option for slowing traffic and a second alternate proposing new stoplights
Photo by Chris Burritt/NWO  |  Oak Ridge Mayor Spencer Sullivan (center) and school bus driver Marcus Thompson (left) review a map showing proposed roundabouts with Michael Burns, a transportation project manager for Stewart engineering firm. Sullivan and Thompson said they favor construction of roundabouts.
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Photo by Chris Burritt/NWO | Oak Ridge Mayor Spencer Sullivan (center) and school bus driver Marcus Thompson (left) review a map showing proposed roundabouts with Michael Burns, a transportation project manager for Stewart engineering firm. Sullivan and Thompson said they favor construction of roundabouts.

OAK RIDGE - As a school bus driver, Marcus Thompson knows traffic patterns in Oak Ridge and he favors a proposal by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to build three roundabouts to slow traffic and improve safety on N.C. 68 and 150.

Oak Ridge resident Peter Pozzo said adding conventional improvements such as traffic signals and pedestrian crosswalks at intersections would be "more user friendly" since some motorists are unaccustomed to navigating traffic circles.

Jerry Cooke, developer of Oak Ridge Commons Shopping Center and other commercial properties in town, wonders why the state highway department proposes spending millions of taxpayer dollars on improvements that may not be necessary.

"We don't really have a traffic problem in Oak Ridge," Cooke said.

More than 120 people with differing views crowded Oak Ridge Town Hall Tuesday for a look at NCDOT's proposals. They scrutinized maps and quizzed engineers and designers from NCDOT and Stewart, the Raleigh-based engineering firm helping the state agency with road improvements in Oak Ridge.

A film showing aerial and behind-the-steering-wheel views of driving on roundabouts played repeatedly during the three-hour open house. Many people filled out questionnaires seeking their opinions about possible changes and dropped their answers in a comment box.

NCDOT will consider residents' opinions in deciding how to proceed with the highway work, said Brian Ketner, project engineer in the agency's Greensboro office. The state plans to acquire property for the project's right of way beginning April 2020, followed by the start of construction a year later, according to information distributed by NCDOT.

The roundabout option would consist of traffic circles at three intersections - at Highways 68 and 150, at 68 and Linville Road near the Bojangles' fast food restaurant and at 150 and Marketplace Drive near the Sherwin-Williams paint store.

Under the second alternate, stoplights would be added at 68 and Linville Road and at 150 and Marketplace Drive. Improvements at 68 and 150 would add pedestrian crosswalks and eliminate the four "slip lanes" that allow drivers to turn right without entering the intersection.

As part of both plans, a stoplight would be added at 68 and Marketplace Drive, near McDonald's. A median would be constructed to prevent motorists from crossing from one side of 68 to the other or turning left onto the highway, said Doug Taylor, a Stewart vice president.

Sentiment for and against roundabouts at Tuesday's meeting was "pretty much a 50-50 split," said Ketner, judging by his conversations with residents.

Mayor Spencer Sullivan said he favors construction of traffic circles. "Personally, I think it would be a better option for us," he said, without elaborating.

Improving the N.C. 68/150 intersection with new signals and pedestrian crosswalks would require acquiring right of way, including property owned by Oak Ridge Military Academy. Three of the school's buildings on the south side of N.C. 150 would be torn down as part of those conventional improvements, said Andy Young, manager of transportation design for Stewart.

Demolition of those buildings would require approval of state historic preservationists because they're considered historic properties, Young said. "That is a hurdle and we don't know whether that hurdle can be jumped," he said.

Pozzo, the Oak Ridge resident, said crossing at roundabouts requires pedestrians "to take your life in your own hands" because traffic is constantly moving. Resident Jim Harton concurred, saying crossing N.C. 68 would qualify "as an Olympic sport for Oak Ridge residents leaping through traffic. I'm really concerned about pedestrians."

"I like the look of roundabouts for the town, but my experience with them has been negative," said Diane Pearson, an Oak Ridge resident for 15 years. Based on her experience driving on a traffic circle in Kernersville, she said tractor-trailer trucks are sometimes required to wait several minutes for a break in traffic to enter the roundabout, slowing down traffic behind the trucks.

Pearson said she believes improvements are needed to ease "horrendous congestion" at the N.C. 68/150 intersection. "It doesn't matter what time of day you go there," she said.

Cooke, the developer, doesn't share that view. Last year's opening of I-73 from N.C. 68 south of Oak Ridge to U.S. 220 north of Summerfield has reduced traffic on 68 through Oak Ridge, he said.

Instead of proceeding with the major improvements being evaluated by NCDOT, Cooke proposed the agency install traffic signals at 68 and Linville Road and at 150 and Marketplace Drive and then evaluate traffic over several years.

"If we don't have a problem, why do we want to proceed and spend all of this money?" Cooke asked.

Construction costs for the roundabouts option would total $5.4 million, according to NCDOT estimates. Costs for conventional improvements would be $7 million, reflecting costs for traffic signals and other equipment, said Ketner, adding that remaking intersections requires more asphalt than building roundabouts.

"I think roundabouts are a great idea," said Thompson, the school bus driver. "There's a learning curve, but I think people will realize how effective they are in keeping traffic moving."

Part of the opposition to roundabouts reflects "the way people see Highway 68 today as a through-traffic road for tractor trailers," said Oak Ridge resident Mike Kimel.

As I-73 siphons traffic from 68, Kimel said more of the traffic through Oak Ridge will be local. Construction of roundabouts, coupled with the reduction of the speed limit through Oak Ridge's commercial district from 45 mph to 35 mph, will require motorists to slow down, adding to the town's efforts to create more of a "village feel" for Oak Ridge, he said.

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