DOT explains 11 & 11 revamping

Published 7:29 am Saturday, August 14, 2010

WINTON – Since the changes began a few weeks ago, many individuals in the local area, including elected officials, have debated, pro and con, the work the NC Department of Transportation has performed at the NC 11 and 11 intersection near Ahoskie.

That work was to change the junction, the scene of numerous accidents, some with fatal results, over the years from a crossroads to a t-intersection. The work also included the placement of a new traffic signal at the intersection of US 13 and Modlin Road.

On Friday at a special called meeting of the Hertford County Board of Commissioners, regional and local DOT officials offered explanations of why this work was performed and the particulars behind their decision-making process.

“Changes have created concern over the past few weeks. I want to take you through the data and our justification as to why we determined this was the best approach,” said NCDOT Division Engineer Jerry Jennings. “This was not a decision we reached lightly. A lot of effort went into looking at different scenarios, different options that could be utilized and the ramifications of each one of those options. It led us to this particular scenario.”

Jennings continued, “Communications….yes, we probably could have done a better job in communicating in what our study was involving and what our options were. However, at the same time, this intersection has been a problem for many, many years. We’ve talked about it for many years. It’s been an issue for at least the last 20 years. We can keep talking about it, keep studying it, look at other option…this is an effort to do something about it. We feel what we’ve done will address the problem.”

Jennings then produced data on the accident history at the intersection….a five-year period from June 2005 through June 2010. He said 36 accidents have occurred during that time period, 31 of which were angle accidents (a t-bone situation where a vehicle pulling out is struck by another traveling along the main line).

“In almost all of these accidents, a motorist stopped at the stop sign and then pulled out,” he said. “It’s not an issue where someone failed to stop. They stopped, looked and then made a decision to move forward. Why that’s happening we don’t know. The sight distance is wide open, you can see for at least a mile in both directions. For some reason, drivers are looking beyond the approaching cars.

“These accidents are not just numbers,” Jennings added. “These types of incidents are always very severe. When someone, from a complete stop, pulls out in front of someone traveling 55-to-60-plus miles per hour and is t-boned, that’s a very serious accident that leads to severe injuries and even fatalities.”

The numbers kept by DOT show 140 accidents over 20 years at the intersection; 120 of those are angle crashes. During that same period there have been six fatalities and 242 injuries.

Jennings also went over the history of the safety measures taken at NC 11 & 11 since August of 1989. Those include clearing the right-of-way to increase the sight distance, a number of different configurations to the overhead flashing warning lights and several investigations on the need for a traffic signal.

“We can say that these accidents are driver error because they are,” Jennings noted. “But it’s our job as highway engineers when you have a pattern of driver error, we’ve got to see if there’s something we can do to remove that opportunity for error. By the changes we’ve made here we are removing the opportunity for the drivers to make the same type of error that has led to all the fatal accidents and almost all the serious accidents that have occurred there.”

Three years ago, DOT officials launched another study of the intersection, one that led to the discussion of installing a roundabout – a traffic circle.

“We were told that was a ridiculous idea for a rural area,” Jennings said. “But there have been studies done where a roundabout works in a high-speed, rural setting. We went through a pretty intensive design process. As we got further in to that there wasn’t a lot of comfort level among our design engineers as to how it was going to work. The biggest concern was the truck traffic, there’s a lot on NC 11. That creates a problem, plus speed was a problem…you’ve got to slow drivers down before they enter a roundabout. The more we looked at that we said that’s probably not what we need to do.”

With that, DOT engineers went back to the drawing board.

“We went back to square one,” Jennings stated. “We all agree that an overpass is the solution, but that’s five-to-six million dollars-plus. In the scope of what we’re trying to do here is not feasible. It cannot be accomplished in the near term.”

Jennings said many options were studied, including a four-way stop, reverse stop, installing a traffic signal, conversion to a three-leg t-intersection, roundabout and offset t-intersection. He said all had merit, but presented conflicts as well.

“The challenge with a traffic signal is getting people to stop at the light,” Jennings explained. “What you have here is trucks and cars traveling down a long straightaway at speeds of 55-to-60-plus and coming to a stop. We had a real concern with vehicles blowing through the light. We had a concern that a traffic light would actually make things worse. It wasn’t a cure-all by any stretch of the imagination.”

Jennings added that the NC 11 & 11 intersection did not meet the mandated traffic volumes for the installation of a traffic signal.

“We ultimately decided on the three-leg t-intersection,” Jennings said. “You take away that crossing movement, greatly reducing the number of conflict points.”

In explaining conflict points, Jennings said 32 were present where cars had to cross each other at a crossroads intersection….four different directions and three different turning movements from each one of those directions.

“When you pull up to a crossroads intersection you’ve got to look left, right, straight ahead…is that car turning left, turning right; the one coming from the left, is it turning left or right; there’s a whole lot of movement to comprehend,” he noted. “A t-intersection removes a lot of those conflicting movements. You’ve got one approach to look at and you can concentrate on that one movement. A t-intersection reduces the opportunity for vehicles to collide.”

Jennings also addressed the conception that by creating a t-intersection the traffic problems would move somewhere else.

“Yes, we’re moving traffic to other places, but I don’t think it’s all going to Modlin Road,” he said. “Depending on where people are going, I believe this will disperse the traffic to a larger area.”

He said DOT looked at traffic counts, accident history and turn lane issues at each one of the other intersections in the immediate vicinity now affected by this redistributed traffic.

“Surprisingly, we found that the Modlin Road and US 13 intersection warranted a traffic signal even before we plugged in the numbers of the redistributed traffic,” Jennings said. “We’ve lowered the speed limit (from 55 to 45 mph) on Modlin Road due to the increase in traffic there and we’re prepared to make other modifications, including turn lane length, at other intersections affected by this.”

“We’re confident that we’ve made a significant improvement,” he added. “But if we find out that by doing what we’ve done that we’ve created a whole new situation we didn’t foresee, this (t-intersection) can come out. We haven’t taken out any pavement. We haven’t built a new road; we haven’t built a new intersection.”

“Your explanation was great, I understand the reason, but I just wish we had been more involved in the discussion,” Commissioner Howard Hunter III remarked at the end of Jennings’ presentation. “I also think a traffic signal was the answer there (NC 11 & 11).

Hunter addressed the increased traffic on Deerwoods Road, located on old NC 11 where new barricades are placed blocking vehicles from accessing the 11 & 11 intersection from the east side. He said a resident on that road has complained about the increased number of vehicles as well as the speed they are traveling through a residential community in an effort to reach Modlin Road.

DOT District Engineer Winn Bridgers of Ahoskie, who lives near that area, said he has noted the same issue.

“I think the increased traffic on Deerwoods is from people ignoring the half-barricade at old 11 and 13 and they realize it’s no longer a through road and they’re cutting through Deerwoods to get to Modlin,” Bridgers noted. “I don’t see this as a permanent problem. I think that’s just a mistake on their part, but we’ll keep an eye on it.”

Hunter also inquired about the width of Modlin Road, saying he thought is was narrow compared to other roads in the area.

Bridgers said that would be looked at as well, saying perhaps a foot could be added to the travel lanes.

Commissioner Hunter said he was also concerned about the length of the left turn lane off NC 11 to Modlin Road, especially with an expected increase of bus traffic there once school begins later this month. He also expressed uneasiness over what he thought would be increased traffic on Saludia Hall Road and at the Union crossroads (Boone’s Farm Road and NC 461).

Commissioner Ronald Gatling asked if the roads where the traffic may be redistributed from NC 11 & 11 were up to standards to handle the increased volume, especially with the bus traffic now rerouted to these roads.

“The traffic counts on these roads were taken when school was in session,” Division Traffic Engineer Chad Edge responded. “There was nothing to indicate there was an abnormally high traffic volume on those roads. Those roads can handle the traffic.”

Bridgers pointed out that unless school buses had to turn on Modlin and then on US 13 to make pick-ups or drop-offs, the buses traveling between Hertford County Middle School and Hertford County High School could use NC 11 and NC 561.

First Sgt. Todd Lane of the Ahoskie office of the NC Highway Patrol expressed concern over the length of the left turn lane off US 13 at Modlin Road (at the new stop light). He said it was now large enough to handle two school buses…“any more and the traffic will back up behind them,” he stressed.

“I’ve talked to the (Hertford County) school bus garage officials and told them that unless those buses had stops on U.S. 13 or Modlin, to take them off those roads and divert them to NC 11 and NC 561,” Lane added.

“Dispersing traffic to different intersections will lessen the impact that traffic has at one intersection,” Jennings said. “Because there is a signal at 11 and 561, it can better handle the traffic flow, but that’s not to ask everyone to go there. They will choose the path of least resistance.”

“I’d like to thank DOT for the attention you have given us,” Commissioner Bill Mitchell said. “I feel a lot better this morning after hearing Jerry talk about the number of studies that were done. Now when I’m faced with citizens concerns, I can answer their questions. I still have some concerns about what was done, but we don’t have any data to show if it will work or not. I guess we’ll have to give it some time before we do have data on the new work.”

Mitchell also expressed concern over the possibility of increased traffic at the Union intersection, especially with the school year, including Roanoke-Chowan Community College, set to open.

“If you do have concerns about any intersection, let us know what they are so we can address them,” Jennings stated.

Another concern came from now retired Hertford County Commissioner Marshall Askew. He noted that the speed limit on US 13 north of Ahoskie increases from 45 mph to 55 mph prior to reaching the new stoplight at Modlin Road. He suggested keeping it at 45 mph to the intersection of US 13 and Old NC 11. He also expressed concern over the new traffic that will be on Modlin Road, saying that DOT “has created a monster there.”

In closing, Board Chairman Johnny Ray Farmer asked Jennings to discuss another solution to local traffic problems.

“This entire corridor has been under study for the Ahoskie Bypass,” Jennings said. “There are a number of options and opinions on where that bypass needs to go. The project goes from US 158 at Winton back to US 13 south of Ahoskie.

“The concept we’ve talked about is to look at an independent project outside the realm of the Ahoskie Bypass that would go from Winton to NC 561,” Jennings stated. “It doesn’t preclude any of the options for going around Ahoskie; it just defers that debate until another date in time, but will allow us to address a highway where there’s minimal controversy over and is the most needed part of that project. We need to look at a way to structure such a project. We’ve got ongoing projects (set to begin in 2011) to improve US 158 from Murfreesboro to Winton and US 158/13 from Winton to Tar Heel (in Gates County). Adding this proposal would give us a nice little network of improved roads here.”