Concerns persist for Dinwiddie loggers over planned RCUT

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: January 24, 2020 | 1:30 p.m.

Current layout sees large trucks ignoring required in-median stop

DINWIDDIE – As plans to reconfigure one of the county’s more heavily traveled intersections continue to be developed and refined by state transportation officials, members of one of Dinwiddie’s key industries – timber and logging – have raised concerns that the proposed changes could create additional issues for drivers of large trucks and tractor-trailers.

In an interview, Virginia Loggers Association Executive Director Ron Jenkins explained members of the association have communicated a number of concerns regarding the Virginia Department of Transportation’s proposal to transform the intersection of New Cox and Courthouse Roads from its current four-legged layout into a modified median U-turn.

Known as a MUT, for short, and dubbed one of several types of “innovative intersections” by the transportation agency, the configuration would eliminate the current left-turn and through movement at the intersection of New Cox and Courthouse Road and require drivers to utilize a pair of installed U-turn paths in the median to either cross U.S. Route 460 or access Route 627. Upon completion, according to VDOT, the existing opening in the median would be demolished to prevent further use.

The conversation regarding addressing safety concerns at the intersection began a year earlier following the death of Dinwiddie teenager Dakota Reid in a crash that left a number of others seriously injured, with residents pressing VDOT and the county to find a way to remedy what many in the county have called a dangerous intersection but, how to do that has led to variances in opinion in the community, with some arguing in favor of the MUT proposal, a speed limit reduction, traffic signals, or increased law enforcement presence in the area.

Speaking last week, Jenkins said he is in one accord with the community in believing that there are issues present at the intersection but he and members of VLA question if the MUT is the best solution to its problems, particularly for large logging trucks that frequently use the intersection to access key locations in the county.

“We don’t question there are some issues and there needs to be some work to improve public safety,” Jenkins said of the crossroads, while noting the significant weight and size considerations that have to be looked at when determining how a truck hauling a full load of timber can safely navigate a MUT or other restricted-crossing U-turn intersections.

“The logging trucks are very heavy and legally are allowed to carry up to 90,000 pounds with a DMV permit and can have a total length, from the front of the truck to the rear of the load, of 75 feet total,” he detailed, adding roughly 14 to 15 feet of that total length can be overhang, where the timber extends beyond the body of the trailer.

With those considerations, Jenkins said timber trucks, or any other heavy commercial vehicles could face challenges trying to work their way through the intersection as it is being proposed, featuring the two U-turns, a lane in each direction of U.S. Route 460 to slow down approaching and to gain speed exiting the U-turns, and a single lane of travel along New Cox Road as traffic would be consolidated into one lane well before arriving at the intersection.

The current configuration of the intersection of Courthouse Road and U.S. Route 460 with the in-median stop sign causes trucks to be unable to position themselves without blocking lanes on New Cox Road, resulting in some disregarding the stop sign. (Michael Campbell)

“The ability to brake at the intersection, slow down, regain your speed that you now working into the lane with oncoming traffic that is probably traveling at a much higher rate and to move over to the far left lane, then braking again to make the U-turn puts the log truck or most heavy commercial trucks at a disadvantage, and our members feel that is less safe than trying to modify the intersection,” Jenkins said.

Throughout the MUT’s development, officials with VDOT have stated they have been engaged with members of the agriculture and timber community, along with Dinwiddie County Public Schools in order to address concerns regarding large vehicles like trucks and buses being able to safely move through the MUT.

During the latter part of 2019, following a public information session, officials said some of the changes presented in November, such as widening the radius within the U-turns to allow for additional capacity were born from communications with different stakeholders, with VDOT forgoing construction of the MUT in August of last year to allow for additional comment from residents.

While Jenkins admits the association doesn’t have access to traffic engineers as readily available as VDOT does when it comes to suggesting alternatives to the MUT, he said the agency has been “courteous and professional” in their communications with the VLA, even though they disagree on the innovative intersection being the solution to issues at the location.

“We have been engaged, they have courteous and professional and they have listened to us,” Jenkins shared. “In fact, I think they have even recognized some of our members’ ideas were spot-on. At the same time, we have kind of agreed that we have to disagree and that was said during our [December 2019] meeting with [VDOT Residency Administrator Scott] Thornton. We have sat down and handled this professionally and courteously but, at the end of the day, we all have parties we have to represent and we are just not in agreement about the solution,” noting they collectively agree that something needs to be done to address safety concerns for all members of the public who drive through the intersection daily.

“We do not want to do things that will cause more safety problems than what we have now,” he said.

Since last January’s deadly crash, what VDOT called “temporary,” improvements were installed at the intersection, including a pair of in-median stop signs that require drivers to stop in the median of U.S. Route 460 before proceeding through, rumble strips, and pavement markings.

While their installation seems to have quelled the number of accidents at the intersection as only one crash as been reported in that area, with the cause being tied to distracted driving and not the layout of the roadway, according to county officials, the improvements have caused their own problem as timber and other trucks are unable to physically position themselves in the median for the required stop without blocking travel lanes along New Cox Road, resulting in some rolling through without comping to a complete stop.

During a visit to the intersection last week and an earlier stop last month with members of VDOT, Dinwiddie public safety leaders, and Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-63), The Dinwiddie Monitor observed a number of large trucks who did not stop at the median stop sign, opting to roll through when the U.S. Route 460 was clear of oncoming traffic.

Jenkins said the association and its members are concerned about that issue.

“This particular intersection that it is physically impossible to get the front of your truck and the rear of the load, especially on a log truck, [inside the median] and part of that truck or load is out into the traffic lane and that is not good, that is a very serious situation there,” he said, noting he floated the idea of widening the median so the rear of the truck does fit inside, dubbed a “bulge intersection” by VDOT, or installing a full functioning traffic light but he was advised both would cost more than the current project, which is estimated to cost just under $300,000, per a Freedom of Information Act request to VDOT last month by The Dinwiddie Monitor.

In regards to traffic lights, it is unlikely a full-functioning traffic signal would be installed at the location as a 2019 study found the intersection did not meet any of the warrants to support a signal. Additionally, despite poles and sets of single-bulb flashing lights being at the intersection now, those poles, according to VDOT, are not designed to support the weight of what likely would be sets of three-bulbed traffic signals, requiring the design and construction of new signals while carrying an average cost of $500,000 to implement, per transportation officials.

For Jenkins, he believes changing the in-median stop signs to yield signs could help in preventing drivers of large trucks from performing an illegal maneuver when not stopping in the median.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to remove the stop signs but, I believe, maybe, a yield sign would be important as the drivers of trucks have to make a judgement call,” he said. “If they are sitting at the initial stop sign, they look both ways and they decide to cross that median, if I am in that driver’s seat, I am thinking ‘Can I get through and make that turn? I don’t see any cars, I am going to go for it.’”

He continued, “So, don’t put the driver in a worse condition by putting the stop sign there. If a driver can make that judgement to go across, then that is what they should do, I think that should be left to the driver. Yet, a yield sign says ‘Hey, be careful, don’t forget to look both ways.’ So I think that stop sign could be replaced with something like a yield sign.”

Flowers fall apart from an apparent makeshift memorial attached to a U.S. Route 460 sign at its intersection of Courthouse Road. One year ago, Dakota Reid died in a crash at the intersection. (Michael Campbell)

As for the association’s thoughts on the MUT itself, Jenkins said “rumble strips, a speed reduction, and additional signage” would “be a good start,” echoing some of what Dinwiddie Sheriff D.T. Adams said last month, suggesting a speed limit drop in the area before moving forward with installing the MUT to see if that will further help reduce serious accidents in the area.

“I think, in a way, our members are saying to not put our money all on one big solution that would be hard to overcome, let’s do some simple things and see if it works, check our data to see if accidents are reducing and people are responding, If that doesn’t work, then we can go to something else,” he closed.

As of last month, officials with VDOT said they would not entertain a speed limit drop below 60 miles per hour without the MUT intersection and its one-lane design along U.S. Route 460 being a key part of that reduction.

A public hearing on a revised version of the MUT is planned for next month’s board of supervisors meeting on February 18 during their 7 p.m. evening session.

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