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DOT to ditch ‘suicide lane’ on 441 in Franklin

DOT to ditch ‘suicide lane’ on 441 in Franklin

With safety concerns at the forefront, a project to significantly alter U.S. 441 through Franklin has been ranked as the top priority by Macon County officials and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. 

The entire project — which will be split into two phases of construction — will remove the so-called “suicide lane” from the five-lane highway and replace it with a raised median and new designated areas to make a U-turn. 

“We’re proposing two lanes in each direction and a median in the center that will control the access and improve safety,” said Brian Burch, DOT division construction engineer. “You’ll only be able to turn left at designated locations.”

With an increase in traffic accidents and even more close calls along the corridor, Burch said the middle turn lane that allows motorists to turn right or left is no longer a safe option on Georgia Road. According to the latest traffic study done in 2015, more than 23,000 vehicles pass through the Franklin corridor a day. 

“There’s lots of wrecks in that area — several near misses — and a tremendous amount of congestion during peak times in the morning and evening,” he said. “A lot of motorists who are very familiar with the corridor are already implementing their own access management by not turning left out of driveways.”

The $37 million project is still several years away from completion, but DOT will begin the right-of-way acquisition process this September for the first phase. Burch said he doesn’t expect any businesses to be displaced during that process. 

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“We don’t expect that — we have existing right of way on the five lane but we will have to widen it some,” he said. “We’ll have to get some right of way to tie in some driveways and secondary roads where the driveways dip down.”

Anyone who drives the corridor on a regular basis knows that some of the driveway dips require vehicles to almost come to a full stop on the highway before making the turn to avoid scraping the undercarriage. Burch said some improved grading should make for easier and safer egress and ingress for drivers. 

The first phase of the project — from the intersection at Franklin Plaza continuing south to the intersection of Wide Horizon Drive and Belden Circle — is estimated to cost $6.3 million with construction getting underway in January 2020. Once underway, construction will take about two years to complete. 

DOT will begin with building the bulb outs for the U-turns and close off the center turn lane with temporary barriers to begin getting drivers used to accessing the designated turn spots. Traffic will be shifted while construct is happening on one side of the road. 

“As we further develop the project we’ll be looking at what type of contracting we can implement to excel the scheduled construction,” Burch said. For example, offering an incentive bonus to the contractor if the project is completed ahead of schedule. “Based on this being a commercial area with few residential homes, we could look at doing night work as well since traffic significantly diminishes after 7 or 8 p.m.” 

The DOT held a public hearing for the first phase of the project last September at the community building. Overall, Burch said the feedback was positive, though some business owners were concerned about access for motorists. 

“Most people recognize something needs to be done just because of the amount of traffic and uncomfortable nature of turning left based on the accidents that have occurred,” he said. “All of the business community looks at access and impacts — they want to know how far will someone have to go to get back to my business.”

Burch said the new grassy median in the middle would be about 7 feet wide until it begins to taper off into a concrete divider at the designated turn areas. In addition to the traffic signals within that mile radius, drivers will have two other opportunities to make a U-turn when driving southbound. When driving northbound, there will be one additional U-turn spot. 

Once completed, the DOT will begin phase two of the project, which will run from Wide Horizon Drive south to Prentiss Bridge Road. That two-mile portion of the project is estimated to cost $31 million, but that could change since it’s still in the development stage of planning. 

The entire improvement project will also include new sidewalks, a 5-foot bicycle lane on both sides of the highway and a new traffic signal at the entrance of the Robert C. Carpenter Community Building. The new signal will align with the future entrance of the new Ingles being constructed along U.S. 441 in Franklin. 

Any existing sidewalks affected by the project will be replaced by DOT with not cost to the town or county, but if there are any new sidewalks the town wants to be installed during the project, the town will be responsible for providing a portion of the cost.  

“The town of Franklin indicated it will be providing sidewalks on both sides of the road so as we develop the project and get cost estimates they’ll make those decisions,” Burch said. “At the very least we will accommodate sidewalks on both sides with 10-foot berms on each side.”

While the public comment period for phase one of the project has already passed, phase two of the project is still in development and public comment will be open early next year.  

Franklin Mayor Bob Scott said it’s too early in the process for the town board to have an opinion on the redesign or know what the town may be able to afford when it comes to landscaping efforts. He said one thing is for sure — it’s a dangerous area that needs to be addressed. 

“The folks with DOT are the experts so I’ll let them tell me the pros and cons — but I’ve not heard any complaints yet,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that comes from growth. And right now (441) is one of the most horrible stretches of highway in Western North Carolina.”

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