By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: November 11, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.
DINWIDDIE – New public comments gathered by state transportation officials show Dinwiddie drivers want something done to help make the U.S. Route 460 and Courthouse Road crossing safer but there are differences in how locals believe it should be done.
The information comes from the now-closed public comment period connected to the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plan to build a modified median U-turn at the intersection of Courthouse Road and New Cox Road in an effort to make the crossing safer for drivers in a corridor that has seen its share of serious and deadly crashes.
In September, following concerns from the community regarding the project and the agency’s wish to “make sure the public is engaged before next steps are taken,” as stated by VDOT spokesperson Bethanie Glover, a community meeting was held at Eastside Enhancement Center along U.S. Route 1 to help residents learn more about the project and submit their own comments, both written and oral through the end of the month.
When asked, Glover provided an overview of the 43 responses the agency received on the project, saying “Approximately 66 percent of the comments received were in support of an improvement project of some sort,” ranging from the current modified median U-turn proposal, “the current proposed project with some modifications, a traffic signal, speed reduction and speed bumps.”
The remaining 34 percent of responses, according to Glover, “felt that no changes were needed or that increased enforcement from police would be sufficient.”
As she has stated over the last two months since construction of the then-modified restricted crossing U-turn was canceled over the summer so the transportation agency could seek additional comment from the community, Glover said VDOT’s next steps are to discuss the responses they have received with their design team and the county and “make any modifications to the proposed improvements.”
While two-thirds of respondents believe something should be done to make the intersection of Courthouse Road and New Cox Road safer, the way they believe it should be done differs based on the answers received during the public comment period, including options that VDOT has previously stated were not able to be implemented at the location.
Following a crash in January that claimed the life of a Dinwiddie High School student and left several others injured, the community pressed county leaders and VDOT for a solution, with residency administrators Crystal Smith and Scott Thornton presenting the concept of the restricted crossing U-turn to a local transportation committee meeting.
Additionally, within weeks of the crash, the Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors requested that speed and traffic signal studies be conducted along the roadway by VDOT. In March, Thornton would advise supervisors that a speed reduction, which many, including supervisors and residents as recently as last month’s public comment period, have requested in the area of the intersection “is not warranted or recommended.”
At that time, Thornton explained that engineers found the 85th percentile speed, or the speed at which 85 percent of traffic in the area was recorded as traveling under free-flowing conditions during the study, was 67 miles per hour, seven above the corridor’s current speed limit of 60 miles per hour.
Over the course of the year, VDOT has explained lowering the speed limit below that 85th percentile speed can create its own problems, such as drivers outright ignoring the lower speed and increasing the risk of accidents as the speed differential between drivers traveling at the speed limit and those driving at the speed they feel is safe for the road grows.
“Studies have shown that motorists tend to drive at the speed they perceive appropriate for the conditions of the roadway,” the agency explained. “When determining speed limits, engineers attempt to set a realistic limit that the majority of drivers will obey and that can be reasonably enforced.”
VDOT continued, “A primary consideration is the speed characteristics, particularly the prevailing (free-flowing) speed, of vehicles on the roadway. Absent undue enforcement, posted speed limits that are set much lower than the prevailing speeds will not be obeyed by motorists.”
Additionally, Smith told residents at the February transportation committee meeting that portion of U.S. Route 460 had been designated as a “limited access highway for the movement of commerce” by the General Assembly in an effort to limit the number of stops or other impacts to movement in the area.
Even with those assertions by the state transportation agency, officials and residents alike believe a speed reduction is needed in that area, with County Administrator Kevin Massengill explaining the board of supervisors’ position on the matter in September, days after the project was delayed for additional public comment.
“The board unanimously feels that an average motorist speed of 67 miles per hour at that intersection is not ideal,” Massengll remarked, referring to VDOT’s findings in March. “We feel like people need to slow down going through that intersection.”
Since February, one month after the deadly crash at the intersection, questions about traffic signals and the possibility of installing one at the corner of Courthouse and New Cox Road to help deal with what some see as a dangerous crossing in the county. Currently, a flashing signal is place, which was installed during the 2000s to address safety concerns at the intersection at that time.
Alongside the speed study, a separate traffic signal study was conducted at the intersection prior to the installation of temporary improvements that were a holdover while VDOT and the county discussed a more permanent solution, which was comprised of new stop signs and markings that require drivers to come to a stop in the median before proceeding, rumble strips, and other modifications.
According to Thornton, that study, which uses Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices as a guideline for determining if a given intersection does, in fact, need a traffic signal, found no grounds to install a full-functioning traffic light at the intersection.
“They evaluated it across the warrants, from the lowest to the highest threshold and, at no time did it meet any single warrant for a signal at that location,” Thornton said at the time. In past conversations with The Dinwiddie Monitor, VDOT representatives said they agency’s engineers look at a number of metrics, including the number of vehicles that use the crossroad, the physical characteristics of the roadway, traffic delays in the area during peak hours, and roadside development, and other data when determining the need for a traffic signal in a given location.
“The traffic light doesn’t eliminate the conflict points and we do not want to go from unrestricted conflicts to rear-end crashes, like we see at Olgers Road and U.S. Route 460,” which, if traveling eastbound from the New Cox and Courthouse Road’s intersection, is the next closest full-function traffic light along the roadway,” Thornton explained.
When asked if VDOT would consider a speed reduction or traffic signal at the location, given the feedback received during the public comment period, VDOT’s Glover noted the results of the past studies but, she added, “all comments are being taken into consideration as adjustments are made to the existing project proposal.”
“Ultimately, the safest and most cost-effective option is what will be proposed and discussed as we move forward,” Glover closed, with the project expected to cost roughly $300,000, according to the agency’s calculations.
With the public comment period closed, there is no timetable for when construction activities or alterations to their plans for the intersection, if any, would occur.
Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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