By Leslee Kulba-Addressing council as a resident who uses Charlotte Street regularly, Max Alexander paraphrased the old adage that says, “If the facts are on your side, pound the facts; if the facts aren’t on your side, pound the law,” only he substituted “emotion” for “the law.” Alexander reminded members of council and the public that the latest traffic study showed fewer accidents occur on the street as-is, than do on similar roads. Traffic engineers concluded speeding isn’t a problem. Reducing the number of lanes from four to three will cause traffic queues to line up longer than two football fields. He asked how pedestrians and cyclists are supposed to like traveling past all the automobiles “idling and spewing stuff into the air.” He added this was the fifth study the city had conducted. Two were completed in-house, and the others were outsourced; but all concluded four lanes are better than three for Charlotte Street.
Brian Dennis, who lives on the other side of Charlotte Street, agreed the city should leave it alone. He said he already has to wait 2-3 cycles at the light during his morning commute. Three lanes would increase drive times for him and all the people driving to and from the Grove Park Inn, plus all the people who are using Charlotte Street to avoid the mess on Merrimon Avenue. He suggested, if the city was bent on planning a corridor, that they take their mischief to Broadway, a wide, north-south road that is sparsely used because of its inconvenient location.
Other residents, like Jan Gianvito Mathews and Grace Curry, feared for the safety of pedestrians. They argued pedestrians were not using Charlotte Street because it is too dangerous. They felt a reduction of automobile lanes to make room for other modes of transportation would help realize a Complete Streets model of multimodal transportation. Citizens argued the city was stuck in an “autocentric” frame of mind, and council had to make some decisions about which forms of transportation it wanted to support on the corridor’s finite width.
Transportation Director Ken Putnam belabored the obvious, stating Complete Streets is only an ideal. No street is going to carry all forms of preferred transit, and do it optimally; so the community did indeed have to make decisions about who would be inconvenienced to benefit whom. Once those decisions were made, the city would likely have to spend “major dollars to get there.”
Don Bryson, a traffic engineer with Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., presented the findings of the last study. He explained different scenarios investigated. Reducing the number of lanes from four to three would cause backups anywhere from 2-5 times longer by the year 2035. He shared a simulation that first surprised him because cars were moving along at an unfettered clip in the three-lane scenario. Then, he noticed the cars on the feeder streets were backing up considerably. Another problem with three lanes was that the lanes would be 14-feet wide, and wider lanes are conducive to speeding.
Citizens had suggested making bike lanes or widening the sidewalk. Bryson did not see the advantage. He said typically studies for changing the number of lanes on a road are conducted to address a problem, such as excessive accidents or speeding. Charlotte did not have those problems. He said the only advantage that might be achieved would be if the city was intent on making the road a pedestrian-friendly environment with limited access. Standing in the way of that, however, were all the obstructions on the sidewalk. Currently, the concrete is somewhat narrower than ideal, and it is riddled with multiple utility poles. Getting those moved would be an expensive undertaking.
The greatest argument against engineering the road to induce more foot and pedal traffic, though, was a high number of curb cuts. Bryson showed a map of all the driveways, noting several lots have two. No amount of repainting of the pavement was going to eliminate all the stop and go associated with that. Members of council inquired into what the city could do, and Putnam said existing properties would likely be grandfathered, but the city could set rules for future development.
In the end, council decided they would send the matter back to staff and council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee. Development of recommendations to take back to council was expected to take 90-120 days. Mayor Terry Bellamy was concerned plans could get frustrated with the transition to a new city council. The PED will therefore review a preliminary proposal in November, and the new council will consider it at their retreat.
As an aside, Bellamy said as outgoing mayor she would like to encourage council to consider doing something to revitalize the city’s western gateway. People are concerned about the South Slope, but she continues to get negative feedback from visitors who tell her to clean up the front door. Visitors are greeted with strip malls, followed by homeless missions. Councilman Jan Davis cracked jokes about his tire store being next, but added he is still waiting for trash cans in his part of town. City Manager Gary Jackson said $250,000 is already allocated toward cleaning up the western corridor.