A plan to improve traffic flow – touted more than three years ago – at the Swansboro Walmart may be in the works.
Although Walmart officials have declined to speak to the Tideland News, others involved in the project say the traffic pattern at the big box store is about to change for the better.
Officials with the N.C. Department of Transportation and the town of Swansboro, along with an adjacent property owner, say plans are to extend Norris Road across N.C. 24 as a driveway that will serve as an entrance/exit for the 158,583-square-foot Walmart and the commercial property to the west.
The project will include the addition of turning lanes as well as traffic lights.
Lauren Haviland, communications officer for DOT’s Divisions 2 and 3, said the project would be funded privately.
“We don’t know who the contractor will be,” she said in an email. “We believe build out will be by 2021. A traffic impact analysis has been performed by a private engineering firm, reviewed and approved by NCDOT. The improvements being implemented (signal, turn lanes) will meet the NCDOT standard designs.”
The plan has also been submitted for Swansboro’s review, according to Andrea Correll, town planner.
“It’s been under review by our traffic engineer and the state for six months,” she said.
With the addition of the new driveway – essentially an extension of Norris Road – the western-most driveway into the Walmart parking lot will be abandoned.
“When the construction project is finished, that road will be closed,” Correll said.
The eastern Walmart driveway, closest to the Hammocks Beach Road intersection, which offers right in only and right out only, will remain open.
“It will be an access road to the gas station,” Correll said.
Once the work is complete, Correll said Walmart would move the store’s sign west to the new entrance.
The property in the area of the abandoned main entrance will be reconfigured into a commercial building lot, according to the current drawings.
Information from Onslow County’s GIS lists the owners of the properties that will be served by the new driveway as Benchmark Developers and Keystone Contractors, which have the same Jacksonville mailing address, and Walmart Real Estate, which has a Bentonville, Ark., address.
“This is not an NCDOT TIP project,” Haviland said. TIP stands for Transportation Improvement Project. “This is part of the required upgrades at this intersection because of the development of Walmart and the neighboring properties.
“This is all privately funded, so we don’t have maps to share. NCDOT is regulating this project to ensure the final build out meets standards, and not a participant in the cost.”
Barden Lanier of Jacksonville is part owner of at least one of the parcels adjacent to Walmart that the access road will serve.
“We are doing the road,” he said in a telephone interview. But, he added, “We’re not quite there yet.”
Lanier said he is a principal in the group that owns about 4 acres just west of the Walmart site. He said his ownership of the property pre-dates the development of Walmart, probably eight to 10 years.
“The only thing that we’re doing is trying to negotiate,” he said. “Walmart, they’re the folks that are putting all this together.
“Hopefully, it will work out. It will improve traffic.”
Correll said she believes the change will improve traffic.
“We feel it is much safer with the truck traffic,” she said. And, it will do more. Correll said the new point of access would serve the four outparcels, adding to their value.
The seed for this plan was planted long before Walmart opened, even before ground was broken.
Scott Chase, former town manager, worked diligently to see this project become a reality. Chase resigned his Swansboro post in January 2019.
“This is something Scott worked on months ago,” Correll said.
Chase told town commissioners in April 2016 that the driveway and access plan for the Walmart, which opened in January 2018, was inadequate, based on a traffic impact analysis conducted for the town by the Timmons Group.
That TIA suggested moving the Walmart entrance to opposite Norris Road and installing a traffic light. Timmons also called for improvements to the nearby Queens Creek Road intersection and more extensive improvements at the Hammocks Beach Road intersection.
At the April 12, 2016, meeting of the Swansboro Board of Commissioners Chase presented board members a letter he planned to send to DOT and Walmart developers, urging them to consider modifying plans for traffic improvements, and why.
Among the several improvements Chase requested were …
… Installing a light at intersection at Norris Road and the development.
… Moving Queens Creek Road up in the State Transportation Improvement Program for widening to the bridge.
… Providing queuing on Hammock Beach Road for movement from stoplight.
… Improving the turn radius at the U-turn feature on N.C. 24 at Hammocks Beach Road.
The requested changes addressed problems uncovered in the TIA prepared by super-sized Walmart.
In the Traffic Impact Analysis submitted by the developer, put together by the engineering firm of Ramey Kemp and Associates, the study was limited to one intersection, N.C. 24 and Hammocks Beach Road.
But the Timmons study showed the Walmart would affect traffic at the highway’s intersections with Norris and Queens Creek roads. In some cases, the impact would rise to a level that will require upgrades, which, under generally accepted DOT policy, should be the responsibility of the developer.
Key to the issue is why the Ramey Kemp study was limited to the one intersection. According to the Ramey Kemp TIA, dated June 2014, the study was developed “through coordination with the town of Swansboro and the N.C. Department of Transportation.”
However, a detailed search of records related to the initial TIA did not bear that out, Chase said. Chase was Swansboro’s interim planner when the Ramey Kemp TIA was submitted for town approval in May 2015. It was part of the project’s Planned Building Group review, which generally serves as a permit application.
Chase said he looked into the email accounts of Jennifer Holland, former town planner, Dave Harvell, former town manager, and Jim Freeman, interim town manager, the three town officials who could have played a role in the TIA.
It appeared the decision to relax the study area was made by DOT, according to Brian R. Rick, DOT’s Divisions 2 and 3 communications officer at the time.
“Based upon the location of this development and the proposed access points, we determined that the N.C. 24 and S.R. 1511, Hammocks Beach Road, intersection would be the primary intersection impacted by traffic coming from the proposed development,” he said in an email.
DOT policy calls for a developer to mitigate traffic problems – fund improvements – when traffic generated by a development results in a “loss of service,” or LOS, that reaches a certain level. And the two intersections not included in the Ramey Kemp TIA would experience significant LOS, according to the Timmons TIA.
Data from the Timmons Group indicated that the Walmart traffic would impact both Norris Road and Queens Creek Road to the point that improvements – per DOT’s apparent standards – would be required. And it spells out improvements that should be made at both intersections as well as to the Hammocks Beach Road intersection.
Without the improvements, the consequences were expected to be significant. For example, using 2015 observations, during the summer, a motorist’s average wait time on Norris Road – which is a key point of access for the eastern campus of Swansboro Middle School – at N.C. 24 was 39.2 seconds in the morning and 19.9 seconds in the evening. With a Walmart, the wait time was projected to be 171.6 seconds in the morning and 30.5 seconds in the evening, according to the Timmons TIA.
While actual data on the current wait times at Norris Road is not available, according to DOT’s Haviland, she said the new intersection will be an improvement all along N.C. 24.
“According to our Deputy Division Traffic Engineer, we do not know what the current wait time is for drivers on Norris Road at N.C. 24,” she said. “We plan to have the signals in Swansboro on a coordinated system with the introduction of the N.C. 24 at Norris signal. The coordinated system attempts to keep traffic progressing on N.C. 24 so that stops at various signals along the N.C. 24 corridor throughout town are minimized. When the signal is installed at Norris Road, we estimate the average wait time for morning and evening peak timeframes for one wanting to egress from Norris Road would be approximately one and a half minutes. We should be able to clear out many cars when it is Norris Road’s turn to go with the signal. This as opposed to the current stop sign situation where one car goes at a time when they can find an appropriate gap in the N.C. 24 traffic.”
Email Jimmy Williams at email@example.com.