February 9, 2016

MEMO TO:           Mayor Barber and Board of Commissioners

FROM:                  Frank A. Rush, Jr., Town Manager

SUBJECT:           Presentation – Potential Installation of “Roundabouts” and/or Other Traffic Improvements at NC 58 Intersections

John Rouse,  NCDOT Division 2 Engineer, and Jim Dunlop, NCDOT Congestion Management Engineer, will attend the Board’s February 9 meeting and make a presentation about the potential future installation of roundabouts and/or other traffic improvement along NC 58 in Emerald Isle.  Patrick Flanagan, Planning Director for the Eastern Carolina Council of Governments and lead staff person for the Down East Rural Planning Organization, will also attend, and the February 9 presentation is intended as a follow-up to his previous comments to the Board in December.

The purpose of the presentation is to better educate the Board and the community about roundabouts, provide an opportunity for Board questions, and learn about other potential traffic improvements that may be helpful in alleviating peak period traffic congestion on NC 58 in Emerald Isle.  Additionally, I am hopeful that any future improvements along NC 58 will also result in aesthetic benefits along NC 58, and view any future improvements as a significant opportunity for the Town.  I do not expect the Board to take a formal position on the potential future installation of roundabouts at the February 9 meeting, and envision that decision occurring later this spring or summer after the Board has had ample opportunity to study this issue and consider public input.  Although NCDOT is the ultimate decision-making authority on any future NC 58 improvements, I believe they value the Town’s input and will seek to work in partnership with the Town on any future improvements.

Potential Roundabout Locations

As you know, the potential roundabouts are being considered as part of the NC 58 Corridor Study that has been underway (led by the Down East Regional Planning Organization) for the past several months.  The scope of that study includes the entire NC 58 corridor from the NC 24/58 intersection along all of Bogue Banks over the Atlantic Beach bridge and up to the US 70 intersection in Morehead City, with a goal to improve traffic flow during peak traffic periods.  The NC 58 Corridor Study was initiated, in part, due to concerns from mainland communities in western Carteret County about summer traffic backups into these communities.

The most significant preliminary recommendation in the NC 58 Corridor Study is the installation of traffic roundabouts at the 4 signalized intersections in Emerald Isle:

  • NC 58 / Coast Guard Road

200 ft. wide right of way available

Full, single-lane roundabout contemplated

  • NC 58 / Loon Drive (Emerald Plantation Shopping Center)

200 ft. wide right of way available

Full, single-lane roundabout contemplated

  • NC 58 / Mangrove Drive (K&V Plaza, CVS Pharmacy)

200 ft. wide right of way available

Full, single-lane roundabout contemplated

  • NC 58 / Bogue Inlet Drive

100 ft. wide right of way available

Mini-roundabout contemplated.

A roundabout is an intersection feature that eliminates the need for traffic signals and keeps traffic flowing continuously by requiring entering traffic to yield the right of way to traffic already in the roundabout.  Traffic flows in a single direction around the feature, with only right turns out of the roundabout in the desired direction.  There are several different sizes of roundabouts:  large traffic circles, double-lane roundabouts, single-lane roundabouts, and mini-roundabouts.

I have attached photos of single-lane roundabouts currently installed in Hilton Head Island, SC, Ocean Isle Beach, NC, and Asheville, NC to provide a better visual understanding of traffic roundabouts.  I have also attached traffic counts for each of the 4 intersections (and also NC 24 / NC 58) that was collected in different weekdays in July 2015.  NCDOT staff has reviewed traffic counts and crash data for the 4 intersections in Emerald Isle, and believe that the installation of traffic roundabouts in Emerald Isle will improve traffic flow during peak periods and reduce the potential for backups and delays.  Jim Dunlop, Congestion Management Engineer, will provide further explanation during his presentation to the Board.  

The Board should note that only single-lane and mini-roundabouts are being contemplated for Emerald Isle (not the more confusing two-lane roundabouts).  Additionally, the Board should note that the Town’s existing bicycle path and sidewalks would be integrated into the new roundabouts, slightly set back from the roundabout feature and also including an island midway across the road.  We don’t perceive any greater safety concerns or greater difficulty for bicyclists and pedestrians to cross NC at a roundabout than currently exists at the Town’s signalized intersections.

The Board should also note that future development near Islander Drive and/or Mallard Drive (the two intersections between Coast Guard Road and Loon Drive) may also necessitate a new traffic signal or roundabout feature in the future.  The areas near both of these intersections are zoned Village West (mixed use) and Business, and the Town is actively promoting quality new development in this area as the real estate market continues to improve.

Finally, it is also important to consider the impact of any planned intersection improvements (or lack thereof) at the NC 24 / NC 58 intersection on traffic flow in Emerald Isle.  NCDOT is also contemplating the future construction of an overpass at the NC 24 / NC 58 intersection as part of the NC 58 corridor study.

Potential NC 58 / Coast Guard Road Roundabout

The NC 58 / Coast Guard Road intersection is viewed as the main choke point during peak traffic periods, and NCDOT believes that a roundabout can function effectively at this location.  The installation of a roundabout at this intersection also represents a significant opportunity to improve aesthetics at this area, and if pursued, I envision a new “Welcome to Emerald Isle” sign being installed in the center of the roundabout, along with attractive landscaping improvements.

It will be important for NCDOT staff to fully consider and evaluate the relationship with the Coast Guard Road / Reed Drive intersection when planning any new roundabout at the NC 58 / Coast Guard Road intersection.  As you know, recreational vehicles often use that intersection to access the Holiday TravLPark, and appropriate planning should occur for these vehicles.  Additionally, Reed Drive represents the only alternative to access the Coast Guard Road neighborhoods, and is a popular alternative route.

Other Potential Traffic Improvements

As you know, the Town formally opposes the widening of the NC 58 bridge into Emerald Isle, and also opposes the widening of NC 58 through Emerald Isle.  Instead, the Town’s Land Use Plan promotes the construction of a new, mid-island bridge from the Hibbs Road area to Bogue Banks in the Indian Beach / Salter Path area.  Given the Town’s opposition to the widening of the NC 58 bridge and NC 58, there are likely few other alternatives to address peak period traffic congestion in Emerald Isle other than roundabouts.  (NCDOT has previously synchronized the traffic signals in Emerald Isle to promote more efficient traffic flow.)

If the Town does not support the future installation of roundabouts, NCDOT may consider the construction of longer, additional, and/or realigned turn lanes at the Town’s signalized intersections.  For example, a separate dedicated right-turn lane onto Coast Guard Road from the bridge may enable these vehicles to exit NC 58 sooner, and/or longer right-turn lanes near Loon Drive (at Emerald Plantation Shopping Center) may have a similar effect.  New right-turn lanes could be considered in the “downtown” area at Bogue Inlet Drive, and it may also be possible to include new merge lanes onto NC 58 from Coast Guard Road, Loon Drive, Mangrove Drive, and Bogue Inlet Drive.

If the Town does not pursue roundabouts and instead pursues additional turn lanes, I am hopeful that these improvements will also include significant aesthetic benefits for the Town.  For example, I am hopeful that any new improvements might also include new steel traffic signal poles at the Town’s signalized intersections, ideally with decorative features.  I am hopeful that the construction of additional turn lanes in the “downtown” area would also include a complete reconstruction of the NC 58 streetscape between the new Welcome Center and the US Post Office to create a more urban environment with new curbs and other streetscape features.    

Process and Timeline

I am hopeful that any proposed improvements (roundabouts or other improvements) can be incorporated into NCDOT’s planning process in 2016.  Depending on how the project(s) scores, it is possible that funding could be made available within the next few years, although it is probably more likely that any such improvements would be programmed further out.

Because the cost of these improvements is relatively small (compared to many NCDOT improvement projects), it is possible that these improvements could be “bumped up” on the schedule if other projects are delayed or have unanticipated savings.  Thus, I am optimistic that any desired improvements could be constructed sooner rather than later.

Outstanding Questions to Consider

As you know, the Town has specifically sought out public input about this issue, and several constructive and helpful comments have been received.  The Town has received both positive and negative comments about roundabouts, with individuals often citing positive and negative experiences in other cities, states, and countries.

Several relevant questions have been raised, and can be summarized as follows:

  • Will roundabouts really work during peak weekend days in Emerald Isle, and enable traffic to flow more efficiently?  Won’t the roundabouts just cause complete “gridlock”?
  • Are the traffic counts (taken on weekdays in July) truly representative of peak traffic conditions on Saturdays, Sundays, or holidays?
  • Will vehicles entering from side streets (i.e, Coast Guard Road, Mangrove Drive, etc.) be blocked from entering the roundabout by drivers on NC 58 exiting the island?
  • What impact does the NC 24 / NC 58 intersection have on traffic flow in Emerald Isle?  Should that intersection be a higher priority?
  • Will roundabouts create confusion, frustration, and impatience among drivers, resulting in more accidents and “road rage” incidents?
  • How would a Coast Guard Road roundabout work with the traffic from Reed Drive, including recreational vehicles and boat trailers?

I expect that Jim Dunlop and John Rouse’s comments will address these questions, and if they do not then it may be helpful to pose these questions at the February 9 meeting.

Some Additional Perspective

It is important for the Board and the community to realize that, in the end, some degree of traffic congestion is simply unavoidable and is, in fact, a good problem to have.  We are all very fortunate to be able to enjoy Emerald Isle, and it is obvious that many people are seeking the same enjoyment of this beautiful place.  We continually strive to make Emerald Isle as desirable as possible for as many as possible, and we certainly want everyone to be able to enjoy Emerald Isle.

There will likely always be certain times when traffic does not flow as efficiently as we all might prefer, and I don’t believe any improvement being contemplated now will be the “panacea” for all traffic congestion issues in Emerald Isle.  I am, however, hopeful that we can continue to make positive incremental improvements over time, and believe that NCDOT is committed to assisting the Town in accomplishing this goal.

I look forward to receiving NCDOT’s presentation on February 9, and look forward to working through this issue with the Board and the community in the coming months.