By Corinne Saunders | Outer Banks Voice on April 21, 2023
Two North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) public input meetings held at Powells Point Baptist Church on April 20 repeatedly devolved into shouting as residents vehemently expressed concerns over a planned roadway safety improvement project on the U.S. 158 stretch surrounding Edgewater Road.
About 80 people attended the 5 p.m. meeting and another 30 came for the 6 p.m. meeting, with about a dozen people from the first meeting staying for the second.
According to project design information, a $5.5 million “reduced conflict intersection” would be implemented to replace a segment of the highway’s center turn lane. Two stretches of raised, grassy medians and two designated “U-turn bulbs” would be located on the stretch of road between New Beach Road and 1,000 feet north of Edgewater Road in Powells Point.
Between May 1, 2012, and April 30, 2022, a total of 58 crashes were reported on that stretch of road, with 40 people injured and one fatality, according to NCDOT’s September 2022 crash analysis. Nearly 30% of the crashes involved vehicles making left turns.
The proposed reduced conflict intersection would allow left turns from U.S. 158 onto Edgewater Road, but left turns from Edgewater Road would require drivers to make a right, then a U-turn.
According to its tentative project schedule, NCDOT would complete its environmental document this August, begin right-of-way acquisitions this fall and start construction in fall 2024.
“The goal of this project is to help improve safety,” said Devyn Teates, consultant project manager with Ramey Kemp Associates (RKA), which is working with NCDOT on the project. She noted the project would reduce potential collisions possibilities from 32 “conflict points” to 14.
Teates gave brief presentations on the project at both the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. meetings, after which, NCDOT and RKA personnel stationed at each of three large maps around the room took questions. But she was regularly interrupted by attendees during the presentations.
Teates explained a probable scenario with the new intersection, following a blue car on the east side of the road that wanted to go south toward the bridge to Dare County, mapping its route on a projected map as it would turn right to go north, then use a U-turn bulb to make that left turn.
“That’ll work well on Saturdays and Sundays!” a woman said sarcastically, prompting laughter in the audience.
Attendees at both meetings yelled out for examples of when such intersections have been used in a tourist destination around multiple businesses. In both meetings, at least one attendee left midway through, slamming doors on the way.
“This is something that’s been talked about for a long time in the county,” said Currituck County Commissioner Mike Payment about finding a traffic solution.
“From the county’s standpoint, commissioners have been getting phone calls and emails about traffic and the problems,” Payment noted. “We contacted DOT, and they were able to get the speed limit reduced [from 55 to 45 miles per hour]. But after that happened, we’re still getting phone calls and emails. We’ve asked them to come up with something that makes turning safer for everybody.”
Craig Midgett, NCDOT Division 1 division planning engineer, told the Voice before the meeting that reduced conflict intersections are prevalent in the state.
“[U.S.] 17 down to Williamston has one,” Midgett said. “Murfreesboro’s about to have one constructed in the near future. Raleigh, Charlotte, the bigger cities—they’re all over the place.”
“This is a proven design,” Ronnie Sawyer, deputy division engineer for NCDOT Division 1, told attendees. He said there have been other public input meetings on the same topic with “a lot of resistance” initially, but ultimately, the intersections were “found to be successful.”
But many at the two meetings contended that two lanes of nonstop summer weekend traffic would “never” let them make that left turn without a stoplight involved.
“You’re putting all these people’s lives in danger,” a woman said in the first meeting, gesturing around the room. “It’s not going to work.”
“Light controls traffic. This backs up traffic,” a man argued in the second meeting.
NCDOT staff, however, said the traffic coming out of Edgewater Road isn’t heavy enough for installation of a stoplight there.
Several attendees blamed the county, opining that the traffic woes started when Dollar General was built without a service road. One man asked if NCDOT could build that service road, to which staff replied they only work on state roads.
Some in the audience suggested waiting to see how the proposed Mid-Currituck bridge alleviates traffic in the area, but NCDOT staff said they have been sued again, so they can’t control or predict the court process regarding that.
“The do-nothing solution is not a solution,” said NCDOT Division 1 Engineer Clemmon “Win” Bridgers Jr.
Some at the meetings also asked how long it would take large trucks pulling equipment, including horse trailers, to make the U-turn, and if it would then be possible for them to make an immediate right to access First Flight, the veterinary hospital next to one of the turn bulbs.
NCDOT staff didn’t have immediate turn times, but assured them it would be possible, which did not seem to convince many.
“I have the business most directly affected,” Jessica Stumph, owner of First Flight Veterinary Hospital & Mobile Services, said. She added that she often does surgery with her back to the wall, which is going to be close to one of the U-turn bulbs, and she expressed fears of large trucks taking the turn too fast and crashing into her business, potentially killing her and her staff.
Stumph said car wrecks already take place in the ditch before her business’ front lawn, and the current design all but eliminates the front lawn. “Why can’t we consider moving the bulb down [the road]?”
In between meetings, Powells Point resident Maria Pridgen told the Voice that lower Currituck residents have been asking the county for a stoplight since 2017—ever since the water park was built—to slow down the traffic speeding through on the way to the beach.
Pridgen also said the project also fails to take into consideration the “deadly curve” just to the north of the mapped area, which she said means people won’t be able to stop in time for the U-turning vehicles. “How is that the smartest place to put it?”
NCDOT personnel throughout the meetings encouraged people to write their comments on paper handouts and put them in the onsite comment box or type them online on the form, since spoken comments were not being recorded.
It wasn’t immediately clear how or how much the project would change, given the public input.
NCDOT is accepting public comments on the proposed project until May 5. People can email us158-edgewaterrd@PublicInput.com or call 512-580-8850, code 5674 to comment.
I don’t have much patience for all the sectarian rivalries. We have a traffic problem caused by the same jerks causing problems everywhere else. Since the reduction to 45 mph, I have noticed a significant improvement in driving through this section of 158. It’s much easier to make turns and generally easier to drive, except for the very, very important people who think 45 mph means 65-plus mph. They drive this issue, pun intended. I agree with lippy, make them pay for the problem through a dedicated enforcement program. Building special turns won’t stop them from speeding and defeating the turns. Stop them.
Whoever came up with this plan has been smoking crack. Uturns will be a real traffic disaster during vacation season. The solution is a traffic light.