CORNELIUS – The North Carolina Department of Transportation has been working with residents and town leaders to figure out the best design with minimal impacts to keep traffic moving in the area around Catawba Avenue at U.S. 21. And while recommended designs have changed based on studies and feedback, the latest one had some feeling left out of the conversation.
Paulette Morin didn’t hold back during the public comments portion of the Cornelius Town Board meeting Oct. 1. She was representing QuickTrip, a convenience store that was approved more than a year ago to go in the location of the former Acropolis Cafe and Grille, east of the Exit 28 bridge across from Cashion’s Quik Stop. The property has sat vacant all of this time while revised road designs have reportedly changed the business’s ability to move forward.
“We have gone above and beyond and felt lied to from the beginning,” Morin told town commissioners. “It’s only undeveloped not by choice but by force.”
NCDOT Communications Officer Jen Thompson said the area surrounding the intersection had been brought up as a project that needed to be looked into years ago by the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, now the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization. Already, she said, Catawba Avenue sees around 30,000 vehicles and Statesville Avenue has roughly 15,000, and those numbers are from 2016. The number of vehicles on Catawba is supposed to jump to 45,000 by 2040.
Initially a single roundabout was planned at the intersection to take care of the queuing backups and ease some of the congestion currently felt in the area. Earlier this year, a community meeting was held in the nearby Smithville neighborhood, and NCDOT representatives stated a traffic impact analysis QT completed showed the single-roundabout option wasn’t going to be effective for the amount of growth expected for the area.
At that April meeting, a Southeast Quadrant Intersection was presented as a viable option. The proposal moved some of the traffic off of Catawba Avenue and put it through Smithville by way of a new connector road. Residents voiced strong opinions at the meeting against that option saying it would impact their community too much.
Thompson said subsequent discussions helped convince NCDOT to recommend another option instead.
“When the department met with the town board in February, we presented several design alternatives – the continuous-flow intersection, modified single roundabout and quadrant intersection,” Thompson said. “The quadrant intersection was selected as the preferred design at that time. Following additional analysis of community impacts, in coordination with feedback from adjacent neighborhoods, the decision was made to look for additional options, and this is when the dual-roundabout concept was introduced.”
The now-recommended design includes two roundabouts slated to be off of Statesville Road and Holiday Lane instead of Catawba Avenue. One is just south of the ABC store on U.S. 21, the map shows, and the other is off Holiday Lane near West Sterling Bay Lane. The reason for the roundabouts is because travel is constricted at U.S. 21 and Catawba Avenue, according to NCDOT Project Team Lead Sean Epperson. People will be able to go through and turn right from either road, but left turns won’t be allowed.
“In order to turn left, they will be redirected and have to do a U-turn with the roundabout and then come around to make a right turn,” Epperson said.
Information provided by NCDOT shows this third option is recommended because the roundabouts “have no additional traffic impacts to the neighborhood streets, improve residential connectivity, provide safer pedestrian crossings and notably improve traffic operations.”
The Smithville neighborhood will still be impacted in some way, Thompson said, but she added the department tried to work with the neighborhood to come up with the best option. She added that many neighborhood residents have agreed to it.
The new proposed designed hasn’t sat well with everyone.
At the Cornelius meeting, Morin cited having to change QT building designs based on each new road plan, which has cost the company thousands of dollars in addition to the loss of revenue from not being able to open.
“We were truly excited to come to Cornelius,” Morin said of the company. “With the new design, very likely we will not.”
Cornelius commissioners said they want to support the business and others along the stretch, though town staff expressed surprise at her comments. They discussed ensuring the line of communication is open for everyone. But while the town could fund part of the $10.8 million project if bonds are approved, NCDOT makes the final decision on the design.
And this latest one isn’t set in stone yet.
An NCDOT-organized public meeting was set for Oct. 10 at Cornelius Town Hall for people to drop in to see the proposed designs for the changes, but people still have the chance to weigh in through Oct. 31.
Thompson said they will consider the input to see if the final design needs to be tweaked.
“We have had some level of correspondence with a few businesses, but we have not held any formal, small-group meetings,” Thompson said. “Following Wednesday night’s meeting and based on feedback received, we could hold follow-up meetings if there is a need or desire to do so.”
NCDOT has plans to complete an environmental study and start purchasing right of way before construction in spring 2020.