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Revamping Bickett: Do any of these plans make sense?

Physicians have long had the Hippocratic Oath. You know the one that contains the phrase, "First, do no harm ..."

Okay, that may not be an exact translation from the Latin phrase "Primum non nocere," but the oath's wording dates at least from a 17th century English version.

But for our purposes, wouldn't it be nice if traffic engineers had the same thing?

Obviously this is in reference to the three options for "improving" Louisburg's Bickett Boulevard that were unveiled by the North Carolina Department of Transportation last week at a public hearing.

All of the plans make significant changes to the traffic-challenged Bickett Boulevard, which currently has about as many crashes as your typical demolition derby. Thankfully, most of those crashes are of the bent and twisted metal type, good for auto body shops but most usually don't cause significant injury.

That's not to say we haven't had bad crashes -- and I can easily recall at least three fatalities, one involving a motorist, one a pedestrian and the third a young woman riding a bicycle.

The problem with the Boulevard is that it is less planned than it has been just allowed to happen over the last 60 or so years. Mix four traffic lanes and a "suicide" turn lane down the middle with more than 70 "curb cuts" (streets and driveways) in such a short distance and you've got a recipe for serious problems.

Given that, there is not much debate about the need to improve travel on Bickett -- but agreement ends about there.

The DOT presented three options -- apparently drawn by an outside contractor for DOT -- and no decision has yet been made about which could become reality, although since DOT suddenly has bond money for such projects, it's likely that something will happen soon.

I'm certainly no traffic engineer but even I can see downsides to all of these options -- and I'd go so far as to suggest that they ignore the two main problems with the Bickett Boulevard of today.

But my main objection is DOT prioritizing these two projects (from NC 39 to Nash Street and Nash Street north to Main Street) over the far more dangerous Section D of U.S. 401 from Royal to Louisburg.

DOT engineers have a quick answer: Those projects utilize different sources of money and the money for Bickett can't easily be switched for use on U.S. 401. So, that means Bickett will move forward while that one dangerous, critically important section of U.S. 401 lies dormant and ignored for five, six ... or more, years awaiting money to be appropriated by the North Carolina General Assembly, which can't even agree on a current state budget!

Those of us who have dealt with state government, and especially DOT, over the past 10 or 12 years trying to get U.S. 401 improved are used to this "shell game" of money sources, prioritizing and re-prioritizing projects.

The simple fact is that the legislature is playing politics with the state's infrastructure which has been woefully underfunded and under-prioritized for years -- and there is no sign this current crowd is willing to fix anything.

Granted, Bickett has been dangerous.

Three deaths in the last few years is nothing to sneeze at, but Section D is much more dangerous and has been the site of far more deaths and more serious injuries than Bickett. Just the sheer speed of traffic on U.S. 401 makes any accident there worse -- and in one recent week there were at least four serious crashes on Section D alone.

In my simple-minded view of the world, you fix the worst problems first.

But in the world of state politics, you fix the problems that you have the money to fix, regardless of the need. If one project's funding comes from your right pocket and the other from your left, you figure out which pocket has money in it and you fix that problem regardless of its priority.

Go figure ... it's the same state/DOT "shuffle" that delayed doing anything with U.S. 401 for 50 years or more!

Back to Bickett

Okay, obviously we can't re-juggle the money without help from our legislators and most of us haven't even seen either of them in weeks or months.

There is no reason to believe they will get involved in issues like funding critically important highway projects.

That leaves us with Bickett Boulevard proposals -- and, frankly, I didn't hear many accolades for any of these three options.

First, DOT wants to do away with the "suicide" lane down the middle, converting what is now a turn lane into a grass-covered median.

That will drastically limit left turns into most businesses -- and motorists will be forced to do "go arounds" if they want to get to a business that's on the other side of the road.

That is a significant concern for business owners who rightfully fear that some of their customers will go on, rather than around!

It also seems to be a major concern for the recently re-opened emergency room that's on North Bickett.

Looks to me like ambulances or other emergency vehicles coming from the south will have to drive right past the emergency room, then turn around and come back so they can make a right turn into the facility.

That just seems wrong ... and dangerous for patients in severe distress.

One of the most radical proposals is the creation of two large traffic circles, one at the East Nash Street, NC 56 intersection with Bickett and one at the NC 39, Bickett intersection.

Traffic circles are one of the latest techniques DOT has discovered to keep traffic moving -- and there are places where they work pretty well. The NC 98, NC 96 intersection is a good case in point.

But using them on Bickett raises some interesting concerns.

First, Bickett will be four lanes -- and, assuming DOT uses single-lane traffic circles, that means motorists will have to merge from two lanes into a single lane to enter each traffic circle.

Remember, there will be no left turns to siphon off some traffic so it's likely that there will be even more vehicles hitting those intersections than there are now -- and we Americans ain't ever been good at merging from two lanes into one in an orderly fashion.

Isn't it likely that these may create traffic bottlenecks that will further limit access to some businesses, making a bad situation worse?

The obvious "solution" is to make the roundabouts two lanes -- but that takes up a lot more space, cutting even further into local business frontage and, well, let's be honest, multiple-lane roundabouts come with their own sets of serious problems!

Real-world issue

As someone who has operated a business on Bickett Boulevard for a few months shy of 28 years, and who has taken countless pictures of wrecks along the highway, I think I have a pretty good handle on Bickett's shortcomings.

That said, I'm not sure any of these three options deal with the root causes of the problems, although they may help some.

The two problems are the excessive number of "curb cuts" on such a congested, short section of highway. There are something like 71 between NC 39 and NC 56 alone, most the result of a growth pattern that just happened instead of being planned.

Even in recent years, when the problem had become dangerously obvious, DOT ignored more and larger "cuts" that have made the situation worse.

Second, there is virtually no -- as in none! -- traffic enforcement on the Boulevard.

Speed is a serious problem in such a congested area -- and there isn't even significant enforcement of the traffic signals.

It's not unusual -- in fact, it's actually common -- to see motorists running red lights!

Bickett is like the highway no one wants -- and every agency prefers to ignore.

For example, the town of Louisburg erected one of those speed-monitoring signs in a residential area of North Main Street warning motorists if they are exceeding the 20 mph speed limit, but there is nothing like that on Bickett where speeding vehicles, especially teens in pickup trucks and on motorcycles, are a serious hazard.

I may not know much, but I guarantee you there are far more crashes on Bickett than on North Main Street!

Partial solution

Granted, any of these proposals may help ease one of the significant problems on Bickett, left turns across multiple lanes of traffic.

That's great. But eliminating those turns and essentially making the road a right-turn-only boulevard also is likely to increase speed, so crashes that do happen, and they will, could be more serious.

The bottom line is, don't take my word for any of this. DOT has drawings of those plans on a website, so go look for yourself. And spend some time thinking about the effects each of the drastically different plans will have.

Then, let DOT know what you think -- and what you prefer.

You can view the maps and comment by going to: https://publicinput.com/US-401-Louisburg

There is no guarantee that your comments will change things, but DOT really needs to hear from all of us before they start spending tens of millions of our tax dollars to change Louisburg dramatically.

Of course, you can always approach this like one businessman friend of mine did at the public presentation of the plans.

After spending several minutes reviewing the proposals, he threw up his hands and asked his wife to go to dinner because he was hungry.

"They are going to do what they @#$@ well please anyway," he said of DOT.

He's probably right -- but it's still our county and our tax money!

Don't look now but Thanksgiving is only two weeks away -- and it's a week later than normal this year! Turkeys are nervous -- and Santa is polishing up his sleigh.

How can that be?

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Members Opinions:
November 14, 2019 at 3:49pm
Roundabouts would be a nightmare as proposed. Too much traffic and too many trucks. Option 1 sounds best but probably leaving things alone would be less disruptive. I say save the money and use it for sidewalks and pedestrian crossings.
November 16, 2019 at 5:51pm
Why not lower the speed limit to 35 and enforce it. Rolesville did it and Louisburg is a shorter traverse. Wouldn't make much difference in travel time and would improve safety while not disrupting any businesses or current traffic patterns. Probably wouldn't cost much and might even generate revenue. There wouldn't even be the inconvenience of construction. Saves money. Who's not for that?

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