Money remains the biggest issue for traffic solution at I-40/Highway 59 interchange

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 485 views 

This is a portion of a diverging diamond intersection. It is being proposed as a possible solution for traffic problems at Interstate 40/Highway 59 interchange in Van Buren.

The city of Van Buren hosted a public hearing to discuss movement on the Interstate 40/Highway 59 interchange by Fayetteville Road on Tuesday night (Feb. 9), unveiling a possible fix for the highly congested traffic area. However, it is a solution years in the making and with one minor issue: how to pay for it.

“That’s the biggest problem,” said City Planning Director Joseph Hurst told Talk Business & Politics. “Even if we get with the engineers, and we figure out a great plan, which I think is going to happen — once we do that, where’s the money going to come from?”

The design Hurst showed to those in attendance was what engineers call a “diverging diamond intersection,” or DDI, and there would be some additional issues to address before it could work specifically with Van Buren’s system.

According to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, a DDI “allows two directions of traffic to temporarily cross to the left side of the road,” sending “high volumes of traffic through an intersection without increasing the number of lanes and traffic signals.” (See this video.)

The movement provides easier access to an Interstate. Traffic entering or exiting would not have to cross opposing traffic to make a left turn. Van Buren’s DDI would be six lanes, and operate similar to what is shown in the animation at the end of this story.

Until a design can be finalized, the city is relying on altering the times of traffic signals as well as suggesting access roads to ease traffic burdens – measures that have been in place since 2012. Thus far, the alternatives have delivered results, reducing the flow of traffic by 2,000 cars daily from 2012 to 2014. Unfortunately for Van Buren motorists, Hurst believes these workarounds have gone as far as they can, leaving as many as 28,000 cars per day to traverse the interchange.

“Originally the traffic was backed up way too far on the Interstate, so we started working with the state coordinating traffic light times,” Hurst explained. “They tapped into our feed where they could help with the synching mechanisms. Once we moved traffic off the Interstate, which was the number one safety concern, it affected how long people were waiting in their queues on the highway.”

By “queues,” Hurst was referring to the corridor that includes Rena Road, I-40, and Pointer Trail.

“It’s a give-and-take,” he added. “If you want traffic to go more north from Pointer Trail, then you’re going to make someone else wait,” which is essentially a microcosm for the funding issue Van Buren now faces.

Hurst said it could still be another five years before the city figures out how to make the DDI design work specifically to Van Buren’s needs. Only then will it be able to answer the funding question.

He continued: “Highway funding is a huge problem in the state. It’s such a problem that the governor is doing something totally unconventional that’s never been done before, where he funds the highway. So it’s not just us that’s having funding issues. It’s the whole state, and we’re competing with them. So our question, and what the aldermen have to answer is, do we want to take local … street money and put it towards a state highway when we don’t even know where the other money is coming from? It’s a big decision.”

Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman told those in attendance he had begun to hold out around $250,000 yearly toward funding the estimated $18.9 million project since municipalities must demonstrate a financial commitment to a road project of this magnitude before receiving funds from the state. The problem, Freeman noted, is that “at one time it was a flat 80/20 split,” meaning a project of the size proposed for the interchange would require around $3.8 million worth of local investment to trigger state participation.

However, funds have become so limited and competition so fierce, that local governments can no longer predict the exact amount they will need. Therefore, cities without a dedicated streets and maintenance tax – like Van Buren – must decide how to divide money between existing streets and a project with no guaranteed start date. Only when a final design plan is approved can a city save more aggressively toward its share of the project.

“Once you see the mark on the wall, then you can go for it,” Freeman said.