By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: January 8, 2020 | 1:45 p.m.
VDOT ‘was comfortable’ with plans, ready to install last year before more comment sought
DINWIDDIE – As the new year gets underway, so too does the efforts of the Virginia Department of Transportation as officials work to further refine plans to implement a modified median U-turn at the intersection of U.S. Route 460 and Courthouse Road, with the goal of implementing the intersection configuration in the spring, even as opponents to the concept continue to advocate for options other than MUT, including ones that have been consistently rejected, such as a full-functioning traffic signal, and others that seem to now be back in consideration, like a speed reduction in the area of the intersection.
Just before the Christmas holiday, The Dinwiddie Monitor interviewed members of VDOT’s team who are closely involved with the project at the residency level, Crystal Smith and Scott Thornton, along with communications manager Bethanie Glover to get an update on the project after the agency’s November presentation to the county board of supervisors and visit from Delegate Lashrecse Aid (D-63) after her office received concerns from residents and area drivers about the MUT proposal.
“Basically, right now, we are continuing to move forward with the project,” Smith remarked. “We are working with the Virginia Loggers Association, [the agriculture community], the sheriff’s office, and school transportation. We are going to continue those communications and making any modifications that may come out of those partnerships with them. In February, the county plans to hold another public hearing so we can share the final design of where we stand.
Since December, talk of a speed limit reduction has increased from VDOT after previous comments from the agency and documentation showed that a speed drop was “not warranted” for the stretch of roadway, which currently has a limit of 60 miles per hour and, based on a 2019 speed study, drivers typically traveling at 67 miles per hour. While it was not brought up during the November supervisors meeting, the idea of a 5 mile-per-hour drop was mentioned to Del. Aird during her visit with county officials to the intersection.
When asked, Smith reiterated that a speed decrease is being looked at in conjunction with the reduction of U.S. Route 460 to one lane through the area of the MUT with its current design.
“We are still traffic engineering division to see if there is a possibility to have the speed reduced since we have really decided that we feel like dropping that median-inside lane and putting everyone in one lane of traffic, we are hoping they will reconsider a speed reduction in that location,” Smith remarked, saying, as of December, she had not received any final guidance on that request from them.
Nearly one year on, temporary improvements were installed at the intersection of Courthouse Road and U.S. Route 460 that officials say have reduced the number of crashes but, VDOT said they are prepared to implement a permanent fix this spring, the modified median U-turn. (Michael Campbell)
For some, including Dinwiddie Sheriff D.T. Adams, a speed reduction without the MUT is something they would like to see looked at, with the sheriff saying if VDOT would reduce the speed limit in the area, he would station deputies along the roadway to enforce it.
“I think it should be considered and maybe tried first before they go through all of the expense of putting in this proposal. They lower that speed, I will have my deputies out here,” the sheriff said last month.
When asked if the agency would consider implementing a speed drop without the MUT project, Smith pointed back to previous studies that said a speed reduction was not recommended for the corridor its current form.
“As far as VDOT looking at that as a standalone thing, there have been multiple studies done and the answer to that would be no,” she said. “I think, from a residency and internal standpoint, we are trying to find some ways to justify a modification in the speed based on dropping the median-side lane and forcing all the traffic into the one lane.”
Smith continued, “What I will say, we have a similar type of modification by dropping the median lane in Nottoway County and there was a speed reduction to come from that one. The traffic engineers are working really hard. I know the citizens, the public, and the county are really interested in having some type of reduction there so, we are really trying to find a way to get to that point.”
While the physical project itself has been the source of much debate and discussion in the community, the financials of the project have also drawn their own questions as some have asked if the project is being developed in such a way that funding spending is being confined to a narrow window.
According to the agency’s documentation and a posting on their website, the MUT’s implementation is estimated to cost $295,000.
When asked, Smith shared a detailed account of how this project is being funded.
“Originally, when the last fatality occurred, the county came to VDOT and asked us to come up with the project to try and improve safety at the intersection. At that point, we had our traffic engineers start looking at some options and we started considering what funding options were available,” the residency administrator explained. “At that point, the Richie [Avenue] project,” which sought to install a left turn lane from U.S. Route 1 to Ritchie Avenue near Taco Bell and a new traffic signal, “was already in the works and planned to be constructed with safety money,” which, according to Smith, “is dedicated to the residency and each district gets some and it’s separated by county.”
Smith continued, “Now we looked at how much we would have left to see if we could do something at Courthouse Road. Because of the design we were looking at was going to be more than the safety funds we would have available, we indicated to the county that it would have to wait until the following fiscal year. At that point, the county wanted to know were there any options available to expedite the project,” noting county leaders opted to use secondary six-year road plan funds through adding the project to their plan, which was adopted late last spring.
“At that point, there was no dollar amount,” Smith noted. “When we originally started on the design, there was no budget, there [were] no confinements provided to the traffic engineers, the county, or anything like that, it was about getting the best project we can get while obviously considering the financial aspects because we want to be good stewards of the public’s funds but, there was nothing that was constraining us to one particular option.”
Last month, VDOT Residency Administrator Crystal Smith walked Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-63) through the agency’s plans for the intersection after the delegate’s office received messages from concerned citizens regarding the project. She said her office would be in attendance for a February hearing on the project. (Michael Campbell)
According to information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, VDOT, as of December 11, 2019, has spent $34,227 on the project. Of that, $21,252 were part of salaries and overhead as part of “traffic engineering reviews, environmental reviews and permits, hydraulic reviews, design, public information meetings, public hearings, survey, sign installation, and other miscellaneous work.”
Equipment costs are also accounted for in the total spent so far, totaling $8,944. The questions surrounding equipment began in August when some saw construction vehicles being staged in the area ahead of planned construction that month before being removed as the agency opted to garner more public feedback, hosting their first information session in October of 2019. Through the FOIA request, VDOT explains the cost includes “VDOT staff vehicles, survey party equipment, message boards, sign shop equipment, equipment hauling, engineering equipment, etc” while also stating the “only charge incurred on this project from staged equipment was one dozer.”
“All other equipment was rented and used on multiple pipe projects in Dinwiddie and Nottoway counties,” the agency said. “Once projects were completed, equipment was staged on Courthouse Road for pick-up and returned to the lease company.”
In response to the FOIA request, VDOT also noted the project’s original estimate was $354,396, adding a footnote to that figure, saying “with plans to build [the] project with state forces and the modifications currently proposed, an estimate reduction is expected,” with VDOT’s projects portal showing a current cost estimate of $295,000. “Assuming the proposed modifications are accepted, a rough estimate for construction would be below $300,000.”
Going back to August of last year, during that summer, VDOT stated multiple times their intention to move forward with construction of the MUT, then called a restricted crossing U-turn, or RCUT, with the goal of having it in place prior to the start of the school year for Dinwiddie students, as the intersection is a primary link to county schools. The agency then shifted its posture and said it planned to gather additional public comment, thus delaying its implementation.
While it remains unknown what caused the shift in VDOT’s plans for the roadway last year, it has resulted in questions from residents and local drivers following comments from residency administrator Thornton in November of last year, where he remarked to supervisors the MUT is “a better project because of public involvement we received on October 17,” referring to the public information and comment period the month prior. With those remarks, some have asked if VDOT was prepared to implement the intersection in August without many of the refinements that have been phased in to its current design over the last several months.
When asked that question, both Thornton and Smith said they “were comfortable with the design” of the RCUT as it was at that time.
“Like anything else, you have input and you take a step back from it for a minute, you can make anything a little bit better,” Thornton remarked. “Overall, we kept the same traffic movement. But yes, we would have built it but, again, one of the things Crystal has always said, the type of project this is lends itself to improvements after the fact so, if we built what was proposed in August and subsequently it had been installed and somebody said ‘we really would’ve like this’ or ‘this is an issue,’ then we could have come back with pavement markings or anything else and made those modifications after the fact.”
In regards to its implementation, Thornton noted, “while it is under construction, until both [u-turns] are complete, you can’t open one side of the RCUT,” saying it will cause additional conflicts.
“While the intersection is being built, both of the RCUTs will be closed off and at some point in time after we have altered the public and given them plenty of heads up, we would close the existing crossover and open the U-turns on both sides,” he explained further. “We are ongoing with the educational piece of it. The thing between the actual construction and opening that would delay it would be pavement markings and five to ten days of message boards saying a new traffic pattern is coming and an effective date on those boards. Once we hit the effective date, the center would be closed off and the RCUTs would be open.”
Smith added that barrels will be used to close off the median-inside lane to begin work on narrow the roadway to one lane along U.S. Route 460 as part of the intersection’s permanent plan.
“Once those two lanes are permanently converted to the merge and turn lane, then we will put up the message board letting them know there will be a new permanent traffic pattern on whatever the effective date is,” she said. “Once the date hits, we will remove the message boards, pull up all the barrels, put the barricades in the current median and it will be complete at the point, with the exception we will probably leave the message boards out just alerting people to the new traffic pattern for another five to seven days.”
“There are no phases to it. The construction will begin and continue until it is complete, then everything will be lifted and switched all in one day,” Smith stressed.
Dinwiddie Fire and EMS Chief Dennis Hale details the intersection’s history of crashes to Delegate Lashrecse Aird (D-63). According to VDOT representatives, in speaking with Hale, they believe they can forgo plans for a mountable curb that fire and EMS crews could use to cross the roadway as the MUT will be suitable to allow apparatus to move through the intersection. (Michael Campbell)
Based on VDOT’s comments last month, initial plans for a mountable curb that can be used by fire and EMS vehicles in the existing crossing have been scrapped as Smith said in December its likely the pavement will be completely removed.
“We have been working with the county and [Fire and EMS Chief] Dennis Hale and talking about getting fire trucks around that intersection and we feel like we can get rid of the existing crossover completely,” Thornton said.
The agency said they are open to receiving additional comments from local drivers and residents on the project as it continues to be developed ahead of next month’s county-hosted public meeting, which has not had a firm date established aside from it being held in February.
Copyright 2020 by Womack Publishing
Send Us Your News Tips