CORNELIUS – Commissioner David Gilroy likened two roundabouts proposed to ease congestion at the U.S. 21 at Catawba Avenue intersection to the Interstate 77 managed lanes project, saying he felt like they were being told there were no other options when in fact there could be.
Gilroy hoped the board would consider a resolution Oct. 15 against the barbell design that is the current North Carolina Department of Transportation recommended project. It shows constructing two roundabouts on U.S. 21 on either side of Catawba Avenue and limits left turns at the intersection. Town Manager Andrew Grant instead expressed concerns about the town giving a message against the project and stated other factors play a role.
NCDOT has offered at least four iterations of potential solutions to the congestion at the intersection. The two most recent were a quad design, which would have less impact on the businesses surrounding the intersection but would greatly impact the nearby Smithville neighborhood, and the barbell design, which makes less of an impact on Smithville but has caused anger by nearby business owners and developers.
Gilroy wanted the board to back the quad design, which NCDOT moved away from earlier this year. He said a 4-1 vote that took place last month during a closed session discussion about land acquisition that was tied to the barbell project made it look like the board supported the two roundabouts and wanted to publicly dispel that.
Commissioner Kurt Naas was quick to note he cast the dissenting vote, calling the roundabout design “a carnival ride.”
During Oct. 15 discussions, Gilroy wanted proof the quad is no longer a viable option.
“NCDOT has been very clear about concerns expressed with that design in that neighborhood where it was designed to go through,” Grant said, talking about Smithville. “It is not a design that can happen due to concerns expressed at public meetings. In terms of looking at discussion about the quad, the quad is off the table.”
Deputy Town Manager Wayne Herron said Title VI environmental justice is the reason NCDOT backed down from the quad design because he was told the department felt the threat of a lawsuit had “real implications” and “overwhelmingly changed their mind.”
And the morning after the Cornelius meeting Jamille Robbins, public involvement group leader at North Carolina Department of Transportation, confirmed Title VI was a factor in making the change.
Title VI is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination of compensation or denial of benefits for a protected class of people, Robbins said. And that includes any action plans for projects that receive federal funding.
“For environmental justice, we cannot disproportionately impact low-income minorities with project plans and studies,” he said.
Through neighborhood meetings earlier this year, NCDOT heard complaints from stakeholders of Smithville, a predominantly black neighborhood founded in 1869, that there would be major adverse impacts to the area, including right of way and access impacts and impacts to community resources if the quad design was pursued.
Robbins said the contentious neighborhood meeting allowed residents to vent, and the current alternative was developed.
When asked if the quad design was definitely dead with no chance of being resurrected, as Gilroy had alluded to at the meeting, Robbins said he couldn’t answer that.
“The only thing I can say is from the quad came the alternative so we aren’t setting ourselves up for a Title VI complaint,” he said.
NCDOT held a public meeting about the intersection Oct. 10, and both Robbins and NCDOT Public Information Officer Jennifer Thompson said responses were a “mixed bag.”
“There were mixed responses,” Thompson said, reiterating Robbins’ statement and adding that some people were happy just to potentially see some relief as far as traffic is concerned.
During the Oct. 15 town board meeting, Commissioner Denis Bilodeau said the two latest designs are “not acceptable,” citing significant pushback about both from residents and business owners. He asked if the funding could be held for a later time. However, Grant reminded the board, some of the money for the project comes from the bonus allocation funds stemming from the managed lane project and has a two-year expiration date.
“The likelihood of a new design at that intersection and still use bonus allocation money is not a likely scenario,” Grant said, adding the number of designs that have already been proposed is more than the state typically does.
He warned commissioners against potentially losing the money and having it go elsewhere.
NCDOT makes the decision regarding the project, and the roundabout design has not been finalized.
“I would encourage everyone to call Sean Epperson,” Thompson said of wanting more public input through Oct. 31. “You can email, call, snail mail.”
To send comments or learn more, contact NCDOT Division Project Team Lead Epperson at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 704-983-4400. Letters can be sent to 716 W. Main St., Albemarle, NC, 28001.