MOREHEAD CITY — The city council rejected plans Tuesday for a safety median meant to reduce crashes along a nearly 3-mile stretch of Arendell Street.
It remains unclear what state highway engineers will do next, but some form of safety improvements still appear likely because Arendell Street crashes have been identified as a problem and remediation projects have been funded for construction.
The council’s unanimous vote came during a tense, three-hour meeting at the downtown Municipal Building with traffic engineers and about 45-50 attendees. Most of those in attendance opposed the state’s original median proposal and the alternative proposals offered by an independent transportation consulting firm. Attendees and council members spent most of the meeting grilling the engineers on the plans.
Many questioned the data used as rationale for the safety project and the impact it might have on the businesses that line the stretch of Highway 70. Mayor Jerry Jones echoed those concerns, especially the potential negative economic impact of the project, in his request for a motion from the council to reject any of the proposed options.
“I have given this matter much thought over the past months and have concluded that, although the recommendations of this study do present improvements in the area of public safety, I cannot say that they conclusively protect the broader concept of the public welfare. This may not be the right project at this time,” Mayor Jones said, reading from a prepared statement.
Mayor Jones asked for a motion stating the council cannot support the plan. Councilman Demus Thompson provided the motion, which was seconded by Councilman Bill Taylor.
N.C. Department of Transportation officials began developing plans for the median project about five years ago after a review of crash histories showed the 2.9 miles of Arendell Street that is not divided by some sort of median had the highest rate of accidents of any portion of Highway 70 east of I-95.
The crash rate qualified Arendell Street as a high priority for funding and federal highway safety dollars were secured for what was originally a $1.9 million project to replace the center turn lane with segments of concrete and landscaped medians.
A city committee recently approved in a split vote a $3.2 million alternative plan that added features intended to lessen the impacts on limiting left-turn movements, especially for emergency vehicles. But concerns remained about how medians would affect emergency response and access to area businesses.
Mayor Pro Tem Harvey Walker said the $40,000 independent study paid for by NCDOT should have surveyed Arendell Street business and property owners.
“I would think their experiences would be beneficial from what they have personally witnessed, being directly accessed from the street,” he said.
Engineers said they had data from other locations where medians were installed that indicated most businesses had not been negatively affected. They said some actually reported improved business after the projects were completed.
Businesses reported regular customer visits were positively impacted or had no impact 86 percent of the time, according to a UNC Highway Safety Research Center study done for NCDOT in 2010.
Engineers also cited research that showed medians produce a safer, more efficient corridor and that any roadway with 28,000 vehicles per day or greater should be divided by a median. Arendell Street sees an annual average daily traffic count of about 30,000 vehicles.
A total of 377 crashes were reported along the 2.9-mile undivided segment of Arendell Street over five years. Rear-end and angled, left-turn collisions were the most common.
NCDOT engineer Haywood Daughtry said after the council’s action Tuesday that something still must be done to improve safety.
“We have some liability on us to reduce these crashes. At this point, we need ideas,” Mr. Daughtry said.
Some alternative ideas were presented during the meeting. Those in attendance suggested adding more stoplights to slow down traffic, building a bypass to lessen traffic volumes on Arendell Street and installing railroad-type crossing arms to barricade motorists from making unsafe turns.
Eric Broyles of Morehead City suggested the crossing arm idea. He also said the city should increase its police presence to better enforce the posted speed limit.
Engineers said some of those ideas had already been considered and rejected as too expensive, impractical or ineffective.
Andrew Topp, an enginer with the Raleigh transportation consulting firm Martin Alexiou Bryson, which performed the independent traffic study that resulted in two more costly alternatives to the state plan, said medians work at making roads safer.
“It’s a proven countermeasure. It’s very effective,” he said.
Mr. Topp said existing sections of Arendell Street with medians have “thriving businesses” and much lower crash rates than the segments divided only by a center turn lane.
Some in attendance said the reduced speed limit, lowered last year from 45 to 35 mph on a portion of the most crash-prone segment, had not been properly studied for effectiveness.
Mr. Topp said the speed limit had been considered but his firm’s report had not been finalized.
Mr. Daughtry said that in the area where the speed limit was lowered the crash rate did drop but it remained above the state average.
But some attendees dismissed the crash data.
Ed Bailey, owner of Coral Bay Marina, said of the 377 crashes reported, most were property damage only with no injuries or fatalities. The crash rate is below the national average, he said.
“I’m trying to figure out what’s so dangerous about Arendell Street,” Mr. Bailey said.
Sally Lumpkin, an area resident, said her greatest concern was that if medians and and new signals are installed, drivers might begin cutting through neighborhoods off Arendell Street, like hers, to get around the congestion.
“That’s a safety issue that none of your impact studies have looked at,” she said.
Contact Mark Hibbs at 252-726-7081, ext. 229; email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter @markhibbs.