By David Rogers. March 19, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Tuesday’s meeting of the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners shined a bright light on a pressing problem in town: excessive speeds on Valley Blvd., AKA the U.S. 321 Bypass.
The still relatively new four-lane stretch from the South Main St./Skyline Dr. intersection with Valley Blvd., all the way up to the North Main St. intersection across from the Tanger Outlets is an accident — and very possibly a fatality — waiting to happen. And with the stretch from Green Hill Rd. to South Main St. approaching completion (even if still six months or so away), the danger is only going to get worse.
The danger is only going to get worse.
Blowing Rock Police Chief Tony Jones reported to the Commissioners that the number of speeding tickets written in Blowing Rock during the first two and a half months of 2017 are on a pace that will far outstrip the previous number of citations during the administrations of his predecessors, Owen Tolbert and Eric Brown. He added, “But writing tickets alone is not going to solve the speeding problem on Valley Blvd.”
One by one, Chief Jones crossed off different ways that municipalities discourage speeders, from triggering automatic photographs of speeders’ license plates, to “rumble strips”, to roundabouts and traffic circles, because most of them are not permitted in the State of North Carolina or on state or federal highways.
While Jones seemed to be leaning toward flashing signs that showed a driver’s speed vs. the posted speed limit as the likely most effective of permitted strategies for Blowing Rock to employ on Valley Blvd., one Blowing Rock Commissioner pointed out the obvious.
When you see a problem in advance, even one accident is too many — especially if it is fatal.
To his credit, Commissioner Doug Matheson suggested that what was missing from Chief Jones’ list of potential solutions were stop lights.
In fact, many people gave feedback to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) during multiple public meetings that a stop light at the South Main St./Skyline Drive intersection with Valley Blvd. would be needed. NCDOT officials have now replied more than once that their data doesn’t support a traffic signal at that location.
On one cynical level, we are not surprised that a group of transportation professionals that widen (from 2 lanes to 4 lanes) and straighten U.S. 321 from Blackberry Rd. to Kirby Mountain Rd. south of Blowing Rock, then lower the posted speed limit from 55 mph to 50 mph, would reach such a conclusion. Sometimes they seem to be driven like robots by data, without regard to the real world applications of their decisions and policies.
By the way, when we questioned NCDOT officials as to why the speed limit between Blackberry Rd. and Kirby Rd. was lowered, the official reply is that the new highway was engineered that way. We’ll repeat what we said then: If you widen and straighten a highway supposedly to improve the flow of traffic and its safety, and it was ENGINEERED to a lower speed limit, then someone should be fired. We’re not the only drivers to test the safety of 55, 60, 65, and even 70 mph speeds on that road. If there is a curve or two where a lower speed is recommended, then put up one of those signs suggesting that.
Just like we favor restoring the 55 mph speed limit from Blackberry Rd. to Kirby Rd., we propose something — astonishingly — not so radical for Valley Blvd. To help address the speeding problem in Blowing Rock, we propose adding not one, not two, not three — but FOUR new traffic signals. Two need to be immediately installed. The other two need to be installed no later than the completion of Valley Blvd. from South Main St. to Green Hill Rd.
Here are our candidates for traffic signals, and why:
- Green Hill Rd./Rock Rd. — Whether or not the NCDOT’s “data driven” studies mandate it, there is a lot of traffic that comes off of Green Hill Rd., turning both left or right onto U.S. 321. And when you add that the intersection of Rock Rd. — the primary access to both The Blowing Rock attraction and Gideon Ridge Inn — will be evened up with Green Hill Rd., it makes it an even busier intersection, and a natural for a traffic signal or, at the very least, a 4-way stop sign. Instead of allowing drivers to pick up speed as they arrive to the summit after a slower climb up from Blackberry Rd., set their mindset to a slower — and SAFER — trip through Blowing Rock with a signal light here.
- South Main St./Skyline Dr. — While this traffic signal may work counter-purposes to planners wanting to make Sunset Dr. the primary “gateway” to downtown Blowing Rock, this intersection sits on what amounts to a “blind curve” for drivers wanting to turn left from Skyline onto U.S. 321 southbound, or turning left from South Main St. onto Valley Blvd. northbound. When it is foggy, as it frequently is, the danger is heightened even more. And when the road is completed, speed is likely to increase on Valley Blvd. in both directions. During the peak summer season (or on football Saturdays during the fall), turning left or right in either direction becomes problematic — and dangerous.
- Country Club Dr. — For half the year, the Blowing Rock Country Club (BRCC) may be closed and there may not be enough traffic by traditional NCDOT standards to warrant a traffic light, but one glance at the area’s demographics should tell you that one is needed. Not only is there a lot traffic going into and out of BRCC during the late spring to late autumn period when the multitude of seasonal residents are in town, but there are a lot of houses “back in there” that are only accessible via Country Club Dr., including a relative new subdivision on the north end. You also have to keep in mind that a lot of seasonal residents are older, too, with slower reaction times. Darting across a couple of lanes of traffic and negotiating their way into lanes going in the opposite direction when traffic is whizzing by in both directions on Valley Blvd. is just begging for an accident.
- Little Spring Rd. — Where, you ask? A lot of people know this intersection only as “…at the Food Lion.” This may not be the first signal light that you think might be needed, but year ’round this is probably the most dangerous of intersections. I have personally almost been T-boned by northbound Valley Blvd. traffic in turning left from Food Lion, going back to the office, within the past month and a half. Once it was by a big 18-wheeler barreling down Valley Blvd. like it was I-85 going into Atlanta. In each instance, the cars and the truck must have been going at least 70 mph because they weren’t even in sight when I first looked in that direction. When I have mentioned this experience to others, every single person has related a similar experience, if not more than one. With Little Spring Rd. intersecting with Valley Blvd. not so far away from the North Main St. traffic light, this light is probably not going to happen, but that does not mean it isn’t needed.
At the top of NCDOT’s website, the agency describes its mission as “Connecting people, products and places safely and efficiently with customer focus, accountability, and environmental sensibility to enhance the economy and vitality of North Carolina.”
At least editorially, NCDOT has its mission right. “Safely” comes before “efficiently.” Now we need them to offer more than lip service to that priority. We’ve heard unconfirmed reports that it would require five accidents to occur at an intersection before adding a traffic signal will be considered at a particular intersection. When you know and see the problem in advance, even one accident is too many — especially if it’s fatal.