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New plan aims to corral chaotic thoroughfare

A plan to redesign Russ Avenue would dramatically alter the appearance and traffic flow along the frenzied main commercial artery of Waynesville.

The plan has several components, but chief among them is wiping out the middle turn lane. Instead a landscaped median will run the length of Russ Avenue.

If you want to visit up a business on the other side of the median, you’ll have hang a U-turn at a traffic light or duck up one of the new rear-access streets and skirt behind the buildings.

“A huge thing is the rear connectors,” said Town Planner Paul Benson. “It would allow people to move between businesses without ever coming out onto Russ Avenue.”

The goal of the median is to prevent left turns across multiple lanes of oncoming traffic when pulling in and out of parking lots. Instead, left turns will be corralled at intersections, improving both safety and traffic flow.

“Every time you have a left turn, you have to slow down and that means everybody behind you slows down,” Benson said. “Left turns bring traffic to a complete stop.”

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Corralling turns at the traffic lights mean through traffic can sail by rather than constantly braking for darting cars.

It’s not likely that everyone will be fans of the median. It could deter people from patronizing an establishment on the other side, a possible negative for business owners.

But the status quo isn’t much better, said Fred Baker, the Waynesville Public Works Director.

“Nobody is going to visit a business if it is gridlocked in front of your store,” Baker said. “It doesn’t do much good to have unlimited driveway access when it is so congested people don’t want to stop and there’s lots of accidents.”

Nonetheless, some drivers might not like the idea of doubling back should the mood strike them for an Arby’s roast beef or KFC biscuit on the spur of the moment.

But perhaps that’s a good thing, said Joe Taylor, the owner of Taylor Ford Motor Company on Russ Avenue.

“It’s as dangerous as a cocked gun,” Taylor said of Russ Avenue. “When you get 25,000 cars a day on a five-lane road, you shouldn’t impulsively dart across oncoming traffic, so maybe it is a good idea if you have to think about getting over and turning at the stop light. You are encouraging people to be a little safer.”

Taylor comes and goes from his Russ Avenue dealership several times a day. The only time he dares a left out of his parking lot is late at night or early Sunday morning when traffic is sparse. Otherwise, he makes his way to the nearest traffic light for his left-turn needs.

While Taylor thinks creating a safer road is paramount, he likes the other elements of the plan as well: the additional turning lanes at major intersections, the rear-access roads, and realigning sigogglin intersections.

“We need it so badly,” Taylor said of the plan.

At one time, the five-lane commercial strip — defined by a middle turn lane dubbed the suicide lane — was standard road-building fare for the DOT. The five-lane road design proliferated across the nation, working hand in hand with suburban sprawl of fast-food chains and strip malls.

But road engineers have been moving away from the model and instead have heralded the landscaped median as a new approach, largely due to extensive research of accidents involving a suicide lane, according to Deniece Swinton, a transportation engineer with Wilbur Smith Associates, the firm that created the redesign plan.

“Initially DOT was all for that suicide center lane,” Swinton said. “But I think they are coming to realize a median is a lot safer. We are finding more and more of them in DOT are opening up to that idea.”

The design is a lot prettier, too, driving communities to request the design over the traditional five-lane strip.

“The majority of the cities we work with, this is the first thought. They want something pretty — a landscaped median with street trees,” Swinton said.

While some business owners oppose medians, claiming it will hurt their stores if people can’t turn in, Swinton said the trade-off is worth it.

“The only thing I can say is the whole safety factor,” Swinton said. “I understand the median prohibits people from turning left directly into their business but providing them a safer way to get into their business is a plus.”


Crafting the plan

While those caught in after-work traffic snarls on Russ Avenue might feel like the prospects for a fix are hopeless, a solution is well within reach, according to Swinton.

The town got a $40,000 state transportation planning grant to hire a firm of its choice to create a new plan for the road. Swinton was the lead consultant on the project.

Swinton’s first impression of the road?

“Very busy, a lot going on, a lot of traffic, a lot of potential conflict points.”

The description sounds familiar to anyone who’s driven the stretch during rush hour, one foot hovered over the brake while furtively on the lookout for darting cars.

Swinton’s goal was to corral left turns to traffic lights, thus the median. With left turns off the main road being restricted, Swinton looked for alternative ways to access businesses, thus the rear access roads behind buildings.

“I thought personally it was somewhat of an easy fix. There was enough land to create these connector roads,” Swinton said.

The commercial corridor targeted in the plan is less than one mile long, roughly from Bi-Lo at one end of Russ Avenue to the bypass just past McDonald’s.

Russ Avenue is an important road in the county and one that plays dual roles, said Mayor Gavin Brown.

“It is an important commercial hub in the town of Waynesville,” Brown said. Brown also sees Russ Avenue as one of the major gateways into town.

The town thus had dual goals in a redesign: make it prettier and improve traffic flow.

Baker called the redesign “extremely attractive.”


What’s next?

When or if the plan ever comes to fruition ultimately lies in the hands of the Department of Transportation.

To get that ball rolling, Brown anticipates the town board will formally adopt a redesign plan for Russ Avenue by spring. It will then advance to a regional transportation planning board, and from there inch its way toward the DOT’s state priority list.

“If we can get the powers that be to agree that this is the result we want, then politically they will have to find the money to do it,” Taylor said.

Brown is hoping to see the plan implemented in 10 years.

“You would like to think if we really pushed on it and DOT was cooperative and funds were available, that would be reasonable,” Brown said of his 10-year goal.

Baker said the plan could be targeted in stages if there isn’t money or political will by the DOT to do it in one fell swoop.

In ideal world, however, it would be fully implemented rather than a piecemeal approach, Benson said.

“If you just pick one piece, it won’t work as well as if it is fully integrated,” Benson said. “The tricky thing is it involves quite a bit of property acquisition to create these rear connectors.”


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