Overpass Impasse: Churches, Businesses Concerned About Bridge Project
One of the more complicated road construction projects in Moore County is scheduled to begin in a few months, and anxiety over the result is already running high.
The state Department of Transportation is expected to begin construction this September on a new U.S. 1 overpass for Morganton Road after more than 10 years of planning and analysis.
The $18.2 million job is expected to last until early 2015. The existing two-lane bridge — completed in 1956 — will remain open while the first half of the new six-lane overpass is constructed to the north. Once that half is completed, traffic will be rerouted there, the old bridge will be taken down, and the other half of the new overpass will be built.
“The old bridge is functionally obsolete and needs to be replaced,” says John Olinger, division construction engineer for NCDOT. “Like any project we have, there are going to be times when it’s inconvenient. Once the project starts, we just need people to pay attention to the signs and drive cautiously in the work zone.”
Olinger said the design process took so long because NCDOT tried to minimize the impact.
“There are a lot of constraints there,” he said. “I remember looking at preliminary plans in 1998. It’s been in the works a long time.”
The constraints include the churches, Memorial Park, Mount Hope Cemetery, Days Inn, EconoLodge Inn & Suites, and the businesses east of the overpass along Morganton.
Anxiety is especially running high among members of Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Grace Church. Many of them are praying that the new design will not lead to loss of life because the project calls for eliminating access to Luther Way from Morganton.
As a result, Our Saviour members who live north of the church will have to turn right onto U.S. 1 from Luther, cross two lanes of traffic heading south, and then make a U-turn at the traffic signal at Murray Hill Road to go north.
Doug Aitkin, a former president of the Congrega-tion Council at Our Saviour, said Thursday that the church has “begged and pleaded” with the N.C. Department of Transport-ation (NCDOT) to no avail to locate a new traffic signal in front of the church.
“We’ve fought it and fought it and fought it, and we’ve gotten nowhere. We can’t stop them,” Aitken said. “I think they’re going to kill someone. We have a lot of elderly members who live in Whispering Pines.”
Randy Thornton, senior pastor at Grace, said that while he is worried about motorists cutting through the Grace parking lot to access Murray Hill rather than dealing with U.S. 1, he is more concerned that Our Saviour members will only have one way to get in and out.
“That’s just an accident waiting to happen,” Thornton said. “We are deeply concerned and wish they would put in the stop light.”
Olinger said the department’s engineers and designers in Raleigh studied every option.
“A new traffic light was just not feasible,” Olinger said. “We feel that the option chosen will allow for a lot safer movement of traffic. It will be safer than pulling out on either side of Luther Way right now. The two existing access points on Luther Way are dangerous.”
Southern Pines Town Council member Chris Smithson said he is curious to see how the rerouting works.
“It’s not going to be fun for a while,” Smithson said.
William Dean, owner of Flowland and The Lunch Box That Rocks, said he assumed the DOT would stop traffic on Morganton during construction.
“I’m glad Morganton Road will remain open because it won’t affect us as much as I thought,” Dean said. “Hopefully, we’ll feed a lot of DOT people and construction workers. You’ve got to look for the silver lining.”
Rose King, manager of City Pawn Shop, said the timing of the project was not good.
“Business is better than it’s been in a long time,” King said. “We don’t get a lot of business when there’s construction because people don’t like to deal with it. I just hope it works out for the best.”
Southern Pines Town Manager Reagan Parsons said the only significant cost to the town will be the $225,000 allocated in the proposed 2012-2013 budget to move water lines before construction begins.
“It’s a major interchange that sees a lot of traffic on a daily basis, so the project is going to be a significant disruption,” Parsons said. “As difficult as it will be to navigate during the project, the ultimate outcome will immediately make the short-term pain worthwhile.”
Parsons added that about $55,000 will be included in the 2014-2015 budget to pay for three items on the back end of the project: fencing, additional sidewalks and upgrading the mast arms of traffic signals.
“There’s quite a bit of work to be done,” he said.
The DOT also plans to realign Saunders Boulevard with Murray Hill and eliminate the traffic light currently in front of the Kangaroo convenience store.
“I think that is a key element of this project,” Parsons said.
DOT officials asked the Town Council to consider several options to upgrade the overpass and nearby landscaping, but council members balked at the proposed six-figure cost to the town.
“The potential upgrades were way too expensive, especially when you have a tight budget like we do,” Smithson said.
Council member Mike Fields noted that the town would have been upgrading and maintaining a structure it does not own.
“The council just felt those dollars could be better utilized and benefit more people if spent elsewhere, such as on the Downtown Park,” Fields said.
Karyn Molnar, current president of the Congre-gation Council at Our Saviour, said church members agree that a new overpass is needed.
“It’s kind of hard to fight that fact,” Molnar said. “If there were some other way to get to the church, it would be fine. But DOT doesn’t seem to care. We’re stuck with what they want to do.”
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at (910) 692-2474 or email@example.com.
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