HUNTERSVILLE – Picture the extensive collection of long-discussed in-town road projects as a carefully choreographed corridor of dominos carefully engineered over months, and even years, to be properly positioned and poised to fall in a precise order. Then imagine that the first few dominos have been welded in place.
Now you can understand why Huntersville Town Engineer Max Buchanan and several elected officials couldn’t contain some of the frustration they felt during an update on planned transportation improvements at the town board’s annual budget retreat.
Running down the details of locally prioritized projects – just a few days after a draft of the next State Transportation Improvement Program indicated the N.C. Department of Transportation’s widening of Gilead Road between U.S. 21 and N.C. 115 would be delayed until 2025 – Buchanan touched on a assortment of other hiccups and uncertainties destined, at least for now, to slam the brakes on multiple planned upgrades – major and minor – to the town’s network of streets.
As Gilead goes ...
Introducing it as the “project we’ve all come to love the last five years,” Buchanan started his report focused on the $30.8 million project to redesign the Gilead Road Exit 23 exchange at Interstate 77, which also includes implementation of a new turn-restricting traffic-control network at the U.S. 21/Gilead Road intersection just a few hundred feet east of the interstate.
Based on schedule projections, Buchanan said “we were expecting to see work in progress,” but utility conflicts have evolved into what he described as “a big issue.”
Buchanan said Blythe Development Co. has the state contract for the entire project, but work has halted indefinitely as the contractor waits for the relocation of Duke Energy and PSNC utility lines in the construction zone.
The town spent money on early planning for the 21/Gilead intersection, but ceded control of the overall venture to the NCDOT, with the intersection redesign added to the interstate project. The town has another $700,000 committed to the project and planned to use those funds to build a larger roundabout at Arahova Drive, north of the intersection.
That project is part of the larger plan to convert Commerce Centre Drive into an intersection-avoiding connection between Gilead Road and U.S. 21.
And a piece of that project also includes the extension of Holbrook Street, on the south side of Gilead, to a new intersection aligned with Commerce Centre Drive. The locally funded Holbrooks project would also link with Dallas Street near the new Aldi grocery store in the Bayshore Plaza shopping center, providing another alternative connection to U.S. 21 as part of the master-planned system of streets providing local motorists options not requiring navigation through the new intersection.
Anybody dizzy yet?
Buchanan said the town is ready to move forward with the Arahova project, but since it was designed to mesh with the Gilead/21 improvements in a way that wouldn’t disrupt access to Arahova-linked businesses during construction, there is no practical way to proceed with that project.
“We have to tear the world up out there to do it,” Buchanan said.
Similar expected coordination between local efforts and aspects of the intersection and interchange overhaul has also, for all practical purposes, put other pieces of the road network puzzle in park.
Another hub on hold
About a mile east of U.S. 21, a different batch of unknowns has road projects in limbo. Buchanan ran through a list of identified locally funded plans for improvements on Gibson Park Drive, Fourth Street, Walters Street and Church Street that could be shovel-ready in a relatively short time, but have been shelved because, until bigger projects in those areas take shape, the town’s time, money and personnel would be better invested elsewhere.
The town’s approved, funded, mostly-designed and in-progress Main Street Upgrade, combining local, federal and state funds to create a north-south thoroughfare along the Main Street corridor parallel to N.C. 115, is one of those bigger projects. Right-of-way acquisition is underway – with more than $970,000 already spent to acquire 43 of the 155 pieces of property impacted by the project – and Buchanan expects a contract for the project to be finalized in November.
He expects construction of that $16 million project – supported with $7.8 of non-town money – to begin in March or April of 2020.
But the schedule for Vermillion Village, a mixed-used development planned in the heart of downtown with a direct geographical connection to the Main Street project, is uncertain.
And then, there’s the railroad
While the power and gas companies are, for now, cast as the culprits on the Gilead, I-77 and U.S. 21 side of town, Norfolk Southern Railroad is the obstacle for another long-planned local road priority. The extension of Stumptown Road across N.C. 115 to an eastern link with Ramah Church Road using Seagle Street has been considered a valuable east-west transportation asset for many years.
Buchanan said initial conversations about the project with property owners have been “pretty well” received. But Norfolk Southern’s procedures, while not derailing the idea, sidetracked it.
“We have talked to them,” Buchanan told commissioners, laying the groundwork for his explanation of the railroad’s issues, “but we didn’t like the answer.”
Buchanan said before Norfolk Southern officials will consider allowing the Stumptown extension to cross their tracks, a fully engineered design proposal must be submitted. Buchanan said that would require a significant amount of time and money with no guarantee the railroad company would comply with the request.
He also mentioned – for now, just as a topic of conversation – that the railroad’s standard request is that existing crossings be eliminated before a new one is allowed. The logical approach to comply with that requirement, Buchanan said, might be to remove the existing Ramah Church Road railroad crossing since the road would be connected to the new Stumptown extension.
And the train rolls on.
A revised approach
As Buchanan referenced the holdups on road projects, Commissioner Danny Phillips, voicing frustration other commissioners acknowledged that they also felt, said he was disappointed more projects to help ease local congestion were not taking shape. But Buchanan said most of what he could do – including new lights and lanes at many local intersections – had been done.
“All the little things, the low-hanging fruit, is gone,” Buchanan said. “Now you got to build roads and that takes money.”
And also, in most cases, coordination with other agencies.
Commissioners accepted Buchanan’s summary, but also endorsed the idea of taking a revised look to see what projects could begin as soon as possible.
The extension of Patterson Road, a $1 million project beyond the new Kurz corporation site to a connection with Vanstory Drive in The Park-Huntersville, is one of those possibilities.
And a partnership with the developers of the under-construction Walden subdivision to complete the Ferrelltown Parkway, a connection between Huntersville-Concord Road and Ramah Church Road on the east side of town, is another.
Commissioners asked Buchanan to prepare a revised list of possible project priorities for them to consider, emphasizing efforts to improve local roads would not just idle.