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Wednesday, 01 March 2006 00:00

School traffic expert offers alternative solution

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Residents opposed to a plan to add a middle-turn lane along sections of Plott Creek Road in Waynesville have garnered new hope that there could be a compromise with the local Department of Transportation over the project.

A report by a school traffic specialist with the DOT in Raleigh concluded that a middle turn lane is not the solution to traffic back-ups in front of Hazelwood Elementary school during afternoon hours, which was the primary stated purpose of the project. Meanwhile, the Haywood County School Board voted unanimously to ask local DOT leaders to evaluate the road-widening plan with school officials before moving forward.

Residents along the road are opposed to the middle-turn lane on several grounds: it would lop off their front yards, could serve to speed up traffic by creating a visually wider thoroughfare and would alter the character of their semi-rural community.

Every afternoon when school lets out, a line of cars backs up along the two-lane road as parents wait to turn into the school. The local DOT pitched a middle-turn lane as the solution.

But building a middle-turn lane to serve as a parking place for a queue of parents is not the best solution, according to Joel Cranford, a DOT school traffic specialist who has studied Hazelwood Elementary School traffic flows.

“The real issue out there is do these vehicles need to be out in the road? Is it reasonable for those cars to be in the roadway?” Cranford asked. “No, they shouldn’t be. The school needs to be accountable for the traffic it generates.”

Instead of a middle-turn lane, Cranford recommends expanding the driveway on the school property. (see article below)

Conrad Burrell, the regional representative on the state DOT board that has final say over road projects, said the report from the school traffic specialist could offer an alternative.

“We could take a second look at the project and see what these folks recommend,” Burrell said.

Sybil Mann, an opponent to the project, said if improving school congestion is the goal, then a middle-turn lane is clearly not needed, according to the DOT’s own analysis.

“If the real purpose of this is to relieve the congestion at the school, then this certainly gives us hope,” Mann said of the alternative.

Meanwhile, at a meeting last month, the Haywood County School Board questioned whether the DOT could put its money toward a new parking lot and driveway design on the school property in lieu of the middle-turn lane. While the project has been in the planning stages for two years, local DOT officials have not consulted anyone with the school system on the project.

Jim Griffin, the director of auxiliary services and maintenance for Haywood County Schools, attended the most recent meeting between DOT officials and residents last month in hopes of finding out about the plan and reported back to the school board.

Griffin told the school board the DOT officials seemed “ill prepared” to discuss the project at the meeting with residents, lacking traffic counts or studies of Plott Creek Road in front of the school. Local DOT officials were not aware that a DOT school traffic specialist in Raleigh had studied the situation and drafted recommendations.

“I went to Mr. Setzer (Joel Setzer, head of the local DOT division) and said we would hope to sit down and look at other options, such as could we use some of your money to redesign our parking lot to improve traffic flow,” Griffin said.

School board members said it sounded like a good idea and voted unanimously on a motion that asked DOT to hold off on the project until “Haywood County Schools be allowed to investigate the matter.”

“Since they didn’t involve us to start with, we need to get involved on the back end of it,” school board member Walt Leatherwood said at school board meeting two weeks ago. “I would like to see us come up with a solution to this problem.”

School board members said they would simply like to know what DOT is thinking.

“That’s what we need to know. Why? What’s the deal?” said school board member Michael Sorrells.

Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties known as Division 14, has repeatedly told residents he could not kill the project because he wanted Haywood County to get a fair share of the N.C Moving Ahead budget, a special allotment for road projects aimed at safety.

When cost overruns forced Setzer to trim projects from the Moving Ahead list, he cut five other projects but left in Plott Creek. Setzer said he wanted to ensure money was split equally among Division 14’s three regions.

“We tried to spend a third in each of our regions,” Setzer said in an interview. “As we developed cost estimates and things started running over and we started having to trim the program, we also attempted to trim it in a manner that still left about a third of the money in each of the districts.”

Setzer told residents at the public meeting last month the same thing.

But an analysis of the DOT’s Moving Ahead budget shows otherwise. The region that includes Haywood County is getting a far bigger share of the Moving Ahead money than the other two.

The region comprised of Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties is getting $7.7 million. The region comprised of Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties is getting $4.78 million. The region comprised of Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties is getting $9.3 million. If the Plott Creek project was killed, it would still have $8.6 million in projects — more than any other district.

The Plott Creek project is estimated at $1.66 million, and $725,000 will come out of Moving Ahead money.

In Haywood County, $1.5 million in Moving Ahead dollars already were used to address traffic congestion at Tuscola High School, namely to build a second entrance to the school and a driveway on school property. Opponents to the middle-turn lane on Plott Creek point to this precedent as proof the DOT could use its Moving Ahead dollars to rework the parking lot and driveway on Hazelwood Elementary School’s own property instead of building a middle-turn lane.

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