WILMINGTON — Introducing a center lane median to Rombach Avenue will be a barrier to prospective customers, a number of business owners said Thursday.
The comments were made at a monthly Economic Network Alliance gathering where Wilmington’s mayor and the new city engineer gave an overview of the Rombach project slated for summer and fall 2020.
Among attendees who made public comments at the event, it was the plans to add a median that proved to be the most controversial part of the project, with some of the business owners wanting officials to reconsider the median strips.
There will be a center lane median, Mayor John Stanforth said, from the State Highway Patrol traffic light to the traffic light accessing Walmart.
City Engineer Paul Goodhue said replacing Rombach’s current left-turn middle lane with engineered U-turns is expected to reduce the incidence of left-turn crashes which often are injury accidents.
The U-turns are still being designed in more detail, he said, but they will be at signalized locations so that they’ll be under signal control. And the traffic timing of those signals will allow for proper left-turn movements, which is why they are there rather than at unsignalized locations, he added.
The travel time for motorists when they have to make a U-turn is less than two-minutes-additional time if traffic signals are timed the right way, said Goodhue.
But Wilmington Taco Bell franchisee James Mayer said data show that at least some types of businesses are hurt when there is a center median in front of the property. He relayed that the franchise development manager for KFC said there needs to be full access to a site with no road restrictions for in-and-out movement.
Mayer said he spoke with Taco Bell’s lead development officer, who indicated under no circumstances would that restaurant chain approve a new store where there’s a center median unless traffic counts surpassed 50,000 per day.
Wilmington DQ Grill & Chill franchisee Keith Chambers said the engineered U-turns in Arizona, Florida and the Carolinas are “a crapshoot, usually a mess.”
He said he agreed with the mayor’s statement that a lot of roads aren’t built the way Rombach Avenue had developed. But Chambers added Rombach Avenue is already built and the commercial infrastructure is already there.
The business effects of the center lane median will be “like playing Robin Hood,” taking business from some and giving to others, said Chambers.
One person at the gathering said the mayor’s slide show didn’t consider the impact on businesses, while providing numbers on the construction aspect.
Businessman Jack Powell said his experience is that when a median is installed in front of a property, retail will not consider it for a site.
Former Wilmington mayor Nick Eveland asked whether the project improvements such as paving and lights could be done but build the median later only if needed.
He pointed to how Thomas Jefferson, in designing the University of Virginia, did not originally build sidewalks. Jefferson explained he would put in sidewalks a year later after people had walked to the various buildings on campus, and that would result in finding out which pathways people favored and align sidewalks with those trodden paths.
Though it received less comment from the audience, another aspect of the project will be the removal and relocation of traffic lights. There will be nine signalized intersections on Rombach, one less than currently.
Relocating traffic lights will be done in order to keep the progression of traffic moving along the Rombach corridor as a whole, said Goodhue. He anticipates that upon the project’s completion, it will take less time to travel from one end of the corridor to the other.
In traffic timing, there needs to be a certain distance between successive traffic lights in order to achieve vehicle speeds and have what’s called a platooning effect so that vehicles travel together, according to Goodhue.
In reply to an audience member’s comment, the city engineer said of the current arrangement of Rombach traffic lights, “They [the lights] were always too close together. Nobody did the due diligence to look at that and say, ‘There shouldn’t be a signal that close to each other’.”
Of what the median will look like, Stanforth said he doesn’t want it to look industrial or block views of the storefronts. The city will hire a landscape architect to help with the design, he said, adding it probably will be a combination of river rock and low shrubbery.
At one juncture, Goodhue said, “To be honest, if we didn’t introduce a median, a lot of [commercial business] driveways were going to be eliminated” in the improvement project. It is generally agreed that Rombach Avenue has too many curb cuts.
Goodhue is a professional engineer, and additionally is certified as a professional traffic operations engineer by the Transportation Professional Certification Board with a subject matter expertise in traffic operations and traveling safety.
Following the Thursday morning discussion, Stanforth said the city’s position has not changed.
“While the initial need for Rombach Avenue was pavement rehabilitation, the City was aware of safety and traffic flow issues. Improving the safety and travel along the corridor became an additional priority. Because the safety issues were so evident, the City was able to secure significant grant funding. I recognize the importance of the Rombach corridor and the best way to ensure its long-term viability is to make these safety and traffic improvements.
“As a business owner myself, I am sensitive to anything affecting business within the city. However, safety for our citizens remains my top priority. The medians will enhance safety. While it may take motorists time to adjust to new travel patterns, studies reflect that overall business within the affected areas are not negatively impacted. We are designing a safer, more attractive roadway that will better serve current and future traffic,” said Stanforth.
Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768.