Russ Avenue is the main commercial drag in Waynesville, lined with numerous fast food chains, gas stations, and other high-traffic businesses. It’s messy, confusing, frustrating and prone to wrecks. The primary culprit is drivers making left turns in and out of businesses across lanes of oncoming traffic, according to candidates.
Gail Richardson learned first hand how dangerous it is when drivers floor it to make a left turn through a gap in traffic — or at least what they thought was a gap. Last August, Richardson was on her way to Ingles when a car dashed out of the McDonald’s parking lot to make a left turn. The car in the lane beside Richardson slowed down and gave the go-ahead signal to the driver waiting to pull out. The driver couldn’t see Richardson coming along in the other lane, however.
“The person came shooting out and hit me, T-boned,” Richardson said. “She basically totaled my car, and I’m pretty sure totaled her car.”
Richardson’s air bag exploded, and she was trapped in her car until police arrived. The officer who pulled her from her car told her this was a classic accident, the kind that happened all the time in fact.
“They said that street is called suicide alley, and that I was one of many people who had this happen to them. I sat there listening to this and said ‘something should be done,’” Richardson said.
After stewing on it a few months, Richardson went to a meeting of the Waynesville town board and shared her experience. She chastised the board for not doing something to fix Russ Avenue.
“I said ‘I am here to tell you that you have got to get going. It’s time to do something. I don’t care if it costs money. I don’t want anybody else to go through this or somebody to be killed,’” Richardson said.
It might have been just the urging the town board needed. The town had a $40,000 grant from the Department of Transportation to hire a consultant to study Russ Avenue. But the grant had been sitting there for over a year waiting to be used. A few months after Richardson’s talk — and after a newspaper article on what the hold-up was — the town finally got going and is in the process of hiring a traffic consultant for the job.
Whoever sits on the next town board will play a vital role in the traffic study and its outcome. The consultant could make timid suggestions like retiming stop lights. Or they could be emboldened to suggest a drastic overhaul of traffic patterns. Their recommendations could be scuttled and the status quo carried on, or bold changes could be made.
But most candidates — nine of the 11 running for town board or mayor — are at least open to bold changes.
The new traffic design that appears to be gaining traction is replacing the middle turn-lane with a landscaped median. Drivers could no longer make left-turns across lanes of on-coming traffic to get in and out of businesses. Instead, intersections would be redesigned to accommodate U-turns. Drivers wanting to get to a business on the other side of the road would have to make a U-turn at a stop light and approach the business from the other direction.
Recreating Russ Avenue is one of Alderwoman Libba Feichter’s top goals if re-elected.
“I wanted to see Russ Avenue fixed. I do think it is entirely possible to make it a safer, more inviting place that is safe for pedestrians as well as vehicles,” Feichter said.
Feichter has seen the use of landscaped medians on heavily traveled roads in other cities — more heavily traveled than Russ Avenue — and they work, she said.
This summer, a small concrete median was put up in front of McDonald’s to stop left turns. Town leaders have gotten flack over the median, but accident stats from the police station already show its safer.
“If I have to look at inconveniences versus safety, I’m going for safety,” Feichter said.
Alderman Gary Caldwell also thinks left turns across lanes of oncoming traffic are dangerous.
“Cutting left has been a problem. There’s a problem, there’s no doubt about it. It definitely is a safety issue,” Caldwell said.
Bernie Branhut, a candidate for mayor, also agreed safety is more important
“A lot of people are complaining, but safety-wise, it has eliminated a few accidents,” Branhut said.
The median in front of McDonald’s does have its problems, however. It’s a piecemeal approach, addressing one problem area in isolation from the rest of Russ Avenue. And that’s caused a new problem.
The median reduced the turn lane where cars queued up waiting to make a left into Ingle’s. If there’s more than eight cars turning left into Ingles, they spill out into the lane of moving traffic and are vulnerable to being rear-ended.
Charles Miller, one of the candidates for town board, said a landscaped median the length of Russ Avenue is not a bad idea. It is nearly impossible to make left-turns most times of day anyway, and traffic is only going to get worse, he said. His granddaughter was hit making a left turn on Russ Avenue, and knows how dangerous they are.
That said, he thinks the median in front of McDonald’s was premature. Miller has watched the left-turn lane into Ingle’s get blocked with a tractor-trailer, leaving almost no room for other vehicles. Plus, there hasn’t been an accommodation made for U-turns.
The Department of Transportation, not the town of Waynesville, is actually responsible for putting in the median in front of McDonald’s.
“It was a Band-Aid,” Alderman Gavin Brown said of the McDonald’s median. Brown said dozens of accidents had occurred in front of McDonald’s the previous year by people trying to make left turns.
Alderman Kenneth Moore doesn’t like the median, but admits it is safer.
“I don’t like the median. It’s confusing, but I’d like to give it a chance,” Moore said. Moore said the median concept would work better if fully implemented the length of Russ Avenue.
“It is a good idea to have a median all the way down,” Moore said. “I think that would be a lot better than what we got.”
In the meantime, the median in front of McDonald’s is a stop-gap measure.
“It’s one of those things you have to endure until we get the other things in place,” said Mayor Henry Foy. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
The two candidates who said they would not be willing to consider a landscaped median are Hugh Phillips, running for mayor, and Russell “Ty” McLean, running for town board.
McLean said it would hinder business. The median in front of McDonald’s makes him think twice about pulling in because he doesn’t want to hassle with the U-turn.
“It makes it too complicated for someone who wants to go to a certain business to come down to the next intersection and make a u-turn,” McLean said.
Phillip, on the other hand, simply doesn’t like the concept.
“Why plant trees in the middle of the road?” Phillips said. “I don’t understand why they would do that. I think they are asking for trouble with that.”