While the middle-turn lanes are the most contentious part of the project, residents also questioned the plan to widen the lanes to 12 feet, add wide grassy shoulders and straighten curves.
“It’s a no-brainer. You make a road wider, you make it straighter, people go faster,” resident Chuck Dickson said. “That is irresponsible. We are not just talking about a neighborhood. We are talking about going in front of an elementary school.”
Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the region, said the middle turn lane in front of the school will be a place for parents to sit while they are waiting to pull into the school parking lot to pick up their kids. Currently, parents back up in the road in the afternoon and hold up traffic. The middle turn lane is not a perfect solution, however, as it still leaves parents sitting in the middle of the road with cars going by on either side.
“It is possible to get hit in a middle turn lane by cars coming by you,” Setzer said.
Sybil Mann said Setzer should not build a road that encourages cars to go faster and meanwhile stacks parents and children up in a middle turn lane.
“It will hurt our community. It will hurt our children. It will make our school much less safe than it is now,” Mann said. Mann, an attorney, said the plan “borders on negligence.” If a faster road design contributes to an accident, there will be lawsuits against the people who pushed the project, she said.
The town of Waynesville has asked Setzer in the past to lower the speed limit in front of the school from 35 miles per hour to 25, but he would not.
“You have rebuked our attempts to design a road that is safer for children and will calm traffic in front of the school,” Dickson said.
Jim Griffin, director of auxiliary services with Haywood County Schools, attended the public hearing.
“By no means does the school system want to be a bad neighbor,” Griffin told the audience. “I think we might be able to come up with at least other options.”
Griffin said the primary goal should be children safety. He said he would be willing to take ideas to the school board that don’t involve parking parents in a turn lane in the middle of the road. Other solutions proposed by residents include building a second entrance to the school, reconfiguring parent pick-up schedules and adding a separate bus loading area to make more room for parents in the parking lot.
Residents said these cheaper alternatives should at least be given a chance.
“If in five or 10 years we realized we haven’t addressed this, then we can re-address it. I think it is premature,” Ron Moser said at the public hearing.
Setzer nor the road designers have involved the school in planning the road.
“You have not even sat down with the school and tried to work out the challenges,” Dickson told Setzer at the hearing.
Residents at the public hearing were upset by the lack of due diligence Setzer’s staff did before embarking on the road design. Setzer’s staff did not meet with school officials. They did not conduct traffic counts at intersections where middle turn lanes are proposed. They also did not conduct traffic counts at the school.
Residents questioned the lack of information at a public hearing on the road last spring. Last week, residents again asked whether a study has been conducted at the school intersection.
“What do you mean by a study?” Setzer asked.
“Data,” Mann replied.
“Well, as far as what I would call a study, we’ve had folks out here. I know once that I’ve been out here and looked at what was happening,” Setzer said.
Neither Setzer or the road engineers took any notes on what they observed, however. One piece of information has been collected since the public hearing last spring. A private engineering firm from Raleigh hired to design the road conducted traffic counts at the intersection of Hazelwood Avenue and Sulphur Springs Road — another section where a middle turn lane has been proposed.
“We suspected left turn lanes were needed, but we hadn’t conducted actual counts of traffic,” Setzer said of the Sulphur Springs intersection. “Our suspicions were true. We did make those studies. We did find we do need the left turn lanes.”
The DOT also could not tell residents how much the road would cost. They disseminated the same number used two years ago — $715,000 for construction. But construction costs have gone up, as have the cost of buying everyone’s front yards and engineering fees. The total is now at around $1.66 million, according to DOT calculations the following the meeting.
Residents got mad at Setzer for being determined to push the project forward despite opposition and cheaper solutions to solving the school traffic.
“We really don’t have a say so,” said resident Wanda Early. “They have this much money to spend here and they’re going to spend it no matter what.”