Memo-06-12-2018-Item-13

June 12, 2018

MEMO TO:           Mayor Barber and Board of Commissioners

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

SUBJECT:           Resolution Requesting NC 58 Traffic Improvements - (Summary & Suggested Motions)

The Board of Commissioners is scheduled to consider the attached Resolution Requesting NC 58 Traffic Improvements at the June 12 meeting. 

The attached resolution formally communicates the Town’s request that beneficial traffic improvements at 5 signalized intersections along NC 58 be included in the new 2020-2029 State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) currently being developed by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).  The resolution places the highest priority on the inclusion of a new elevated interchange at the NC 58 / NC 24 intersection, and requests that the Carteret County Transportation Committee, the Down East Regional Planning Organization (RPO), and NCDOT Division 2 leaders assign the highest possible “priority points” to projects involving all 5 of these intersections in order to enhance project scores and promote inclusion of all 5 locations in the 2020-2029 STIP. 

General Background

As we all know, NC 58 via the Cameron Langston Bridge is the primary entrance to and exit from Emerald Isle.  The vast majority of Emerald Isle residents and visitors use this route, along with a portion of the other Bogue Banks towns’ residents and visitors.  NC 58, including the Cameron Langston Bridge, is essentially a 2-lane highway, with 1-lane traveling in each direction.  For most days of the year, this design effectively moves traffic through Emerald Isle with relatively little delay.  As we all know, however, the Town experiences traffic congestion on NC 58 during peak periods, primarily on summer weekends and busy holidays, and the delay can sometimes be significant. (See Attachment)

The obvious bottleneck locations are the NC 58 / NC 24 intersection in mainland Carteret County and the 4 signalized intersections on NC 58 in Emerald Isle (Coast Guard Road, Loon Drive / Emerald Plantation, Mangrove Drive / CVS, and Bogue Inlet Drive).  The Town has worked with NCDOT over the years to promote smoother traffic flow on NC 58, and I believe various traffic signal timing improvements, turn lane additions and extensions, and side street improvements have improved traffic flow during this time.  Anecdotally, the duration and distance of traffic backups appears to be less now than 10 or 15 years ago, but there is still significant traffic congestion in Emerald Isle at certain times.

Perhaps the most important background information to consider when thinking about traffic congestion is that the majority of Emerald Isle residents and property owners (and likely our visitors also) oppose the widening of the Cameron Langston Bridge and NC 58 to multiple lanes in each direction.  Our residents, property owners, and visitors value the Town’s “family beach” image and “small-town atmosphere” most, and the Town has always sought to maintain safe and convenient access between the oceanside and soundside areas.  Additionally, over the past decade+, the Town has developed extensive bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and these features are arguably the most popular features in Emerald Isle - other than the beach and sound.  When one considers this key background information, the reality is that there are only a few options available to improve traffic flow, and any such improvements will be incremental in nature.  Thus, the Town’s and NCDOT’s recent efforts have reflected this reality and have focused on incremental intersection improvements, and will continue to do so, unless the community and the Board supports a significant bridge and highway widening project through Emerald Isle. 

Recent Background

In 2015, the Down East RPO completed the NC 58 Corridor Study in conjunction with NCDOT, and that study recommended the replacement of the 4 signalized intersections in Emerald Isle with modern roundabouts that would enable traffic to flow continuously rather than typical traffic signal delays.  The Town hosted NCDOT and other planning officials to learn more about modern roundabouts in late 2015 and early 2016, and expressed an uncertain, but open-minded approach toward roundabouts.

In April 2016, during development of the 2018-2027 STIP, the Board approved a resolution requesting intersection improvements at the same 5 intersections, and also noted its priority on improvements to the NC 58 / 24 intersection at that time.  The April 2016 resolution (copy attached) noted that the Town was open to any effective intersection improvements, potentially including additional traffic signal improvements, additional new or longer turn lanes, installation of roundabouts or mini-roundabouts, or any other improvements that may be effective. 

Ultimately, the 2018-2027 STIP included improvements at 2 of the 5 intersections, and NCDOT is actively working on both of those projects.  Although the 2018-2027 STIP did not include the requested NC 58 / NC 24 elevated interchange, it does include additional turn lane and merge lane construction at the NC 58 / NC 24 intersection, and this work is scheduled for construction in 2020 and 2021.  This project scored much better than the elevated interchange option, in part because of the relatively lower cost (an elevated interchange is estimated at more than $40 million).  The 2018-2027 STIP also includes improvements to the NC 58 / Bogue Inlet Drive intersection, and NCDOT is currently evaluating different alternatives for this location.  Due to limited highway right of way (100 ft., whereas the other 4 locations have 200 ft. or more), this location is more challenging than the other 4 intersections, and we are uncertain as to whether the ultimate improvements will consist of additional through lanes, additional turn lanes and/or a new traffic signal, or nothing at all.  There is also a very slim possibility that a single-lane roundabout will be considered, however this outcome is highly unlikely.  The perception of many is that the NC 58 / Bogue Inlet Drive intersection is perhaps the worst bottleneck, thus I am hopeful that some incremental improvement can ultimately be constructed.

In 2016, the new Publix grocery store proposed a new traffic signal at the NC 58 / Mallard Drive intersection.  There was concern about the impact of a 5th traffic signal on congestion in Emerald Isle, and the NC 58 Corridor Study had recommended modern roundabouts for the other 4 signalized intersections.  Ultimately, the roundabout option was constructed in order to  1) avoid the installation of an additional traffic signal, and  2) to serve as a “pilot project” and enable our community to better evaluate the utility of roundabouts at the other 4 locations recommended by the NC 58 Corridor Study.  The new roundabout opened on March 1, and appears to be functioning well thus far, however, it will likely be advantageous to gain additional experience this summer and fall before making a judgment on the other 4 signalized intersections. 

Current Planning Process / Consideration of Resolution

NCDOT updates the 10-year STIP every two years, and is currently developing the 2020-2029 STIP.  NCDOT has completed a review of the current STIP and safety, congestion, and cost data for hundreds of projects all over North Carolina, and has released draft scores.  These draft scores are the initial step in the planning process, and represent 70% of the criteria for the inclusion of regional projects (much of eastern NC) and 50% of the criteria for inclusion in division projects (the general area between Greenville, Goldsboro, and the coast in central eastern NC).  The assignment of “priority points” by the Down East RPO and NCDOT Division 2 leaders represents the remaining 30% and 50% of the project scores, and these “priority points” will be assigned later this summer and fall.  The 5 intersection improvement projects that we are concerned about have received the following scores:

                                                                                                Regional                                Division

Intersection                                                                           Score (max 70)                    Score (max 50)

 

NC 58 / Loon Drive intersection (Em Plantation)                      48.46                                      37.23

 

NC 58 / Bogue Inlet Drive intersection                                      46.93                                      36.47

 

NC 58 / Coast Guard Road intersection                                   45.82                                      35.01     

 

NC 58 / Mangrove Drive intersection                                       42.85                                      33.23

 

NC 58 / NC 24 elevated interchange                                       35.34                                      27.73.

 

Each of the 4 NC 58 signalized intersection projects in Emerald Isle have estimated costs ranging from $1.4 – $1.9 million.  The NC 58 / NC 24 elevated interchange has an estimated cost in excess of $40 million.

The scores noted above are very high scores relative to other projects, particularly the 4 locations within Emerald Isle.  The Board should note that the 4 intersections in Emerald Isle are the 4 highest scored projects in Carteret County, and are also 4 of the 5 highest scored projects in the entire Down East RPO region.  The STIP process and the scoring system is very complex, and the ultimate inclusion of certain projects in the STIP is dependent on the cost of projects all around the State and the relative scores, however, if the Down East RPO and NCDOT Division 2 leaders assign “priority points” to these projects, there is a high probability that 3 of the 4 signalized intersections in Emerald Isle will be included in the new 2020-2029 STIP, and perhaps all 4.  It is not out of the question, but it is probably unlikely that the NC 58 / NC 24 elevated interchange project will be included. 

The assignment of “priority points” by the Down East RPO and NCDOT Division 2 leaders are critical in order to have these projects included in the new 2020-2029 STIP, and the attached resolution presented for Board consideration is aimed at effectively communicating Emerald Isle’s request so that Down East RPO and NCDOT officials will know that these projects are important to Emerald Isle. 

It is important to note that the attached resolution, nor inclusion in the 2020-2029 STIP commit NCDOT and the Town to a particular type of improvement (i.e., additional turn lanes, roundabout, etc.).  After a project is included in the STIP, NCDOT will complete additional analysis and evaluation, with Town involvement, to determine the most effective and locally-desired project for each location.  Essentially, if these projects are included in the STIP, NCDOT will embark on a process similar to that currently being used for the NC 58 / Bogue Inlet Drive intersection.

The crucial action now is to promote the inclusion of these 5 intersection improvement projects in the 2020-2029 STIP, as if these improvements are not included in the STIP then there will be no State funding allocated for NC 58 intersection improvements.  Projects must first be included in the STIP in order to receive funding, and, as you may know, these projects often take several years to come to fruition.  The Board’s consideration of the attached resolution will enhance the likelihood of future beneficial traffic improvements in Emerald Isle.  Even with the inclusion of the Emerald Isle projects in the STIP, any improvements are still likely at least 2 – 10 years away from construction.

Mid-Island Bridge?

A frequent suggestion from Emerald Isle residents and visitors is that NCDOT should construct a new, mid-island bridge from Hibbs Road to Indian Beach, Salter Path, or Pine Knoll Shores, and that “that will solve all of our traffic congestion”.  A new, mid-island bridge would be beneficial to Emerald Isle in many ways, however, I don’t believe a new bridge will be constructed in any of our lifetimes.  The mid-island bridge project is not even on the list of projects for consideration by NCDOT as part of the 2020-2029 STIP process, will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct, face significant permitting challenges, and face potential political opposition from Indian Beach, Salter Path, and/or Pine Knoll Shores.  The Town can certainly put forth an official request for a new, mid-island bridge, but it would first need to be presented to the Carteret County Transportation Committee for consideration before NCDOT would even begin consideration. 

Some Historical Context

In short, I am hopeful that Board adoption of the attached resolution will keep potential traffic improvements along NC 58 in Emerald Isle at the forefront of discussion by local, regional, and State decision makers, and that this effort will ultimately result in State funding for beneficial traffic improvements (regardless of what form they may ultimately take) in Emerald Isle within the next decade. 

As noted above, it is critical to communicate the Town’s priorities and be included in the STIP, and Emerald Isle can point to two historical examples of this impact for context.  First, an elevated interchange at the NC 58 and NC 24 intersection was considered in the early 2000s.  At that time, the Emerald Isle Board of Commissioners expressed opposition to this project, it was no longer considered, and it has not advanced further over the past 18 years.  Second, and more importantly for Emerald Isle, the Town’s NC 58 bicycle path project from Black Skimmer Drive to the Indian Beach town line was included in the STIP in the mid / late 2000s.  In 2009, when the Federal “economic stimulus package” (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA) was authorized, Emerald Isle was fortunate to receive $500,000 from NCDOT (Federal funds were passed through to the State) to extend the NC 58 bicycle path from Black Skimmer Drive to Hurst Drive.  If the NC 58 bicycle path project had not been included in the STIP, these funds would likely have never been realized by the Town. If future Federal funding becomes available for transportation projects, Emerald Isle could potentially benefit if these improvements are included in the STIP.  If these projects are not included in the STIP, it is unlikely that they would benefit from such future Federal actions.

Do Nothing?

Finally, if the community does not believe that traffic congestion is a significant issue and/or does not support these incremental intersection improvements, the Town can certainly do nothing and not pursue any improvements.  As noted earlier, in the absence of widening NC 58 and the Cameron Langston Bridge, there do not appear to be any options other than those included in the attached resolution. 

I look forward to discussing this issue with the Board at the June 12 meeting.