Rest-area de­sign saved $1M, but is it safe for driv­ers?

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Encore - BY BRUCE HEN­DER­SON bhen­der­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

For decades, weary trav­el­ers go­ing north or south on In­ter­state 77 could pull into grassy rest ar­eas near Mooresville. Now the road­side ar­eas are gone, re­placed by a sin­gle rest area built in the high­way’s me­dian north of Statesville. Why were the ex­ist­ing rest ar­eas de­mol­ished? Reader Jim Ra­man­danes of Char­lotte wanted to know, so he asked Cu­ri­ousNC, a project of the Char­lotte Ob­server, the News & Ob­server and Durham’s Herald-Sun. Ra­man­danes was also in­ter­ested in the safety of the new de­sign, which makes driv­ers exit and re-en­ter I-77 from its pass­ing lanes where traf­fic moves fastest. So, it turns out, was a col­lege civil en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor who calls the de­sign an ac­ci­dent wait­ing to hap­pen. North Carolina’s Depart­ment of Trans­porta- tion an­swered the first ques­tion when the new rest area opened in Fe­bru­ary near Exit 59 in Ire­dell County. It is North Carolina’s first rest area to be built in a me­dian and serve both di­rec­tions of travel. Build­ing the $15 mil­lion fa­cil­ity in the me­dian didn’t re­quire the state to buy ad­di­tional right-ofway, sav­ing $1 mil­lion. The rest area has six re­strooms, a vend­ing/seat­ing area and 55 park­ing spa­ces for trucks. With its open­ing, the two rest ar­eas near Mooresville and two more at the Ire­dell/Yad­kin County line were closed. The clo­sures were part of a years-long trend among states that want to save money op­er­at­ing or ren­o­vat­ing ar­eas, USA To­day re­ported. North Carolina op­er­ates 38 rest ar­eas or wel­come cen­ters on in­ter­state high­ways. The closed I-77 rest ar­eas dated to the early 1970s and didn’t meet fed­eral stan­dards for ac­com­mo­dat­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, said Jimmy Par­rish, DOT’s rest area sec­tion su­per­vi­sor. They were also closer to­gether than the one-hour driv­ing

dis­tance that’s con­sid­ered ap­pro­pri­ate, he said. Clos­ing them will save the state about $275,000 a year in main­te­nance costs, Par­rish said. But Wil­liam Carter, a civil en­gi­neer who taught at the Univer­sity of Florida, thinks there’s more to the is­sue than cost. Plunk­ing a rest area in the mid­dle of a high­way with a 70 mph speed limit is un­safe, he con­tends. “I would have failed a stu­dent with that de­sign,” he said. “To me, it’s a death trap.” Carter, who re­cently re­tired from the Univer­sity of Houston, first saw the new I-77 rest area in May while driv­ing from Florida to a sum­mer home in West Vir­ginia and on the re­turn trip in Septem­ber. His cri­tique: The de­sign forces driv­ers headed to the rest area to exit I-77 from its pass­ing lane. Even more dan­ger­ously, Carter says, the lane lead­ing from the rest area back to the high­way is too short for cars to fully ac­cel­er­ate and has no warn­ing lights to alert on­com­ing ve­hi­cles that they’re com­ing. Two rest ar­eas sit in the In­ter­state 85 me­dian at the N.C. Viet­nam Vet­er­ans’ Memo­rial in David­son County. But un­like the I-77 fa­cil­ity, DOT built bridges that let driv­ers en­ter and exit those rest ar­eas from the in­ter­state’s slower, right lanes. On I-77, Carter said he watched an ap­par­ently pan­icked el­derly cou­ple exit the new rest area into the path of a truck that “al­most ran over them.” He said he wrote Gov. Roy Cooper’s of­fice about his con­cerns and got a courtesy re­ply, but hasn’t heard back from the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion. “I’m go­ing to guar­an­tee the gov­er­nor and I’ll guar­an­tee DOT that one day you’ll have an ac­ci­dent there,” he said. In fact, two ac­ci­dents have been re­ported as ve­hi­cles tried to en­ter or exit the new rest area, DOT records show. The ac­ci­dents left one per­son in­jured and ve­hi­cle dam­ages to­tal­ing more than $34,000. One ac­ci­dent oc­curred early on a March morn­ing when a north­bound trac­tor-trailer tried to move right to al­low traf­fic from the rest area to merge and sideswiped a car in the far lane, the State High­way Pa­trol re­ported. The other col­li­sion hap­pened in July as a Florida driver, af­ter missing the en­trance to the rest area, tried to make a U-turn to en­ter it by go­ing the wrong way on the exit lane and hit a sec­ond ve­hi­cle, a re­port said. Par­rish said DOT had to al­ter its de­sign for the rest area in or­der to get Fed­eral High­way Ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­proval. Both its en­try and exit lanes were length­ened, mak­ing them longer than lanes at road­side rest ar­eas. “It gives peo­ple more time to slow down and to speed back up,” Par­rish said. “That was the main thing the FHA said we had to do.” The high­way ad­min­is­tra­tion didn’t rec­om­mend warn­ing lights for merg­ing traf­fic, as Carter sug­gested, but Par­rish said DOT put up signs warn­ing mo­torists that they would have to exit left to en­ter the rest area. Par­rish said he’s not aware of any mo­torist com­plaints about the de­sign. AAA Caroli­nas said rest ar­eas are im­por­tant recharg­ing sta­tions for mo­torists. “As with any new de­sign, it will take mo­torists some time to get used to en­ter­ing and ex­it­ing the (new) rest stop,” spokes­woman Tif­fany Wright said by email. “AAA will def­i­nitely be mon­i­tor­ing the new fa­cil­ity to see if its de­sign has be­come a safety is­sue.”

MIGUEL SAN­TI­AGO N.C. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion

A new In­ter­state 77 rest area north of Statesville was the first in the state to be built in the me­dian in­stead of be­side the road­way. Build­ing there meant the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion didn’t have to buy ad­di­tional right-of-way, sav­ing about $1 mil­lion.

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