DOT officials explain reason for 15th Street project

Published 5:47 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The proposed 15th Street widening and access project is designed to reduce crashes and ease congestion, a project endorsed by the Washington City Council several years ago, N.C. Department of Transportation officials noted during a meeting with the council Monday.

The council took no action, other than adjourning until its next meeting, after the DOT officials made their presentation.

That meeting was the result of council’s unanimous decision during its Dec. 12, 2016, meeting to oppose the 15th Street project as currently proposed by DOT. The wording of Councilman Doug Mercer’s motion to reject the project as presented by DOT in 2016 left the door open for another plan to be proposed for consideration.

Over the past several years, since a 15th Street project has been on the drawing board, DOT officials have maintained the project’s goal was to reduce the number of vehicles crashes on 15th Street from Carolina Avenue to U.S. Highway 264. Crashes in that corridor occur about three times more frequently than crashes on similar roads in other areas of the state, according to DOT figures.

Some residents and business owners along the project corridor opposed raised medians and other elements of the proposed project. In October 2016, City Manager Bobby Roberson said residents’ concerns had caught the attention of DOT, which modified the plan. Despite DOT’s modifications to the project, those residents and business owners remained unhappy with the project. Other concerns from project opponents center around the proposed medians increasing drainage problems in the project corridor and hindering responses by emergency personnel because they would have to deal with crossing those medians at times.

Ned Hulbert, North Market Street resident, addressed the council at its Feb. 13 meeting. Hulbert, representing the group opposed to the project, said, “A number of our citizens have continued to do research on the 15th Street expansion project, and that’s only reinforced our opposition.” Hulbert said the group considers the project “overkill on a large scale.”

Monday, DOT asked the council to adopt a resolution of support for a project entailing a four-lance divided street with a median of 17 feet, 6 inches between the travel lanes. If the city rejects the project, the money allocated for the project will go elsewhere, not necessarily somewhere else in Washington or Beaufort County, according to DOT officials.

“If this is turned down right now, we can’t wait three to four years longer. If you want a different project, you would have to talk to the RPO, and they would have to resubmit from scratch. The whole process would have to begin again,” said William Kincannon, DOT’s resident engineer for its Division 2.

Kincannon said DOT delivered a project “that was asked of us” several years ago by the city and the Regional Planning Organization that helps determine and prioritize transportation projects needed in the area.

Bradley Reynolds, a transportation project manager with HNTB (a DOT consultant), said a four-lane divided street with a median likely would reduce the crash rate on that section of 15th street from its current crash rate of 755 to a crash rate of 326. Reynolds said such a project would reduce crashes by about 25 percent. The average crash rate on similar streets in North Carolina is 489, according to Maria Rogerson, DOT’s project engineer for the 15th Street project.

Mercer questioned the cost effectiveness of the project when it comes to reducing traffic accidents. “Again, let me emphasize, the reason for this project was safety. You’re indicating with your numbers we’re having about 80 crashes a year. Taking the 25-percent reduction that the gentleman (Reynolds) just suggested, we’re still going to have 60 crashes on year on that street. So, we’re spending $20 million to reduce crashes by 20 a year, and that to me is completely ludicrous,” Mercer said.

Kincannon noted that project opponents have said there is no need “for all this, we just need to correct speeding,” a reference to some of the project’s safety features. “A huge majority of crashed on this road, a huge majority, have nothing to do with speeding,” Kincannon said. Many of the crashes involved vehicles not moving or traveling 20 mph or less, he said.

The meeting was open to the public, but there was no forum for public comments. Project opponents want an opportunity to respond to DOT’s presentation before any vote the council might take on the project.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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