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I-85 interchanges in Kannapolis may get another look

KANNAPOLIS — Comments from the public and business owners may lead to changes in the N.C. Department of Transportation’s plans to drastically alter three interchanges when Interstate 85 is widened.
Division Engineer Louis Mitchell, whose district includes Cabarrus County where the three Kannapolis interchanges are located, said this past week that feedback from recent public information sessions and meetings with elected officials will be considered as the planning process continues.
In a phone interview Thursday morning, Mitchell said the preliminary designs reflected existing traffic counts and land uses in the area.
“Our paramount goal for this area is mobility across this corridor,” Mitchell said. “… Based on our numbers and the best judgment, we think (the proposed plans) are the best solution.”
Those plans have been sharply criticized by some in the area. Some residents of the Forest Brook neighborhood are unhappy with a planned off-ramp that they say would lower their property values by increasing noise.
Other homeowners, however, have spoken out in support of the plan, saying the construction of nearby stores had already lowered their property values and that they would prefer the state’s plans to other options.
Mitchell said he had received a letter from five property owners in Forest Brook who support the proposed design, though he did not specify their names.
At Monday’s Kannapolis City Council meeting, local resident Grant Rader — who’s leading a group of residents opposed to the plan — said the state had failed to properly notify businesses, including the Lowe’s Home Improvement store, of the impending change.
Mitchell said the state did, in fact, notify Lowe’s corporate office and “all of the property owners” directly impacted by the project.
But, he said, it’s impossible to know whether Lowe’s store staff were notified by the company of the impending change.
“I won’t get into debating back and forth over who was notified,” Mitchell said.
Regarding noise and the proximity of homes to the planned ramp, Mitchell said that at this stage of planning, “all options are on the table.”
“We will be considering noise as it relates to the remaining parcels we do not demolish,” Mitchell said.
Other criticisms were raised Monday by Kannapolis City Council members, especially concerning a plan to use roundabouts — 60-foot traffic circles — to control traffic at the Lane Street interchange, exit 63.
Mitchell said the circles are preferred because they allow more traffic to flow through an intersection than a stoplight.
“In addition, there’s a safety advantage to a traffic circle,” Mitchell said, explaining that the roundabouts make it much more difficult for one vehicle to crash into another at high speed.
“It doesn’t prevent all crashes, but it can reduce the severity,” Mitchell said.
He said the state’s transportation department is moving toward having more traffic circles at intersections, for those reasons.
At the same time, Mitchell said, the traffic circles are designed to be safe for large trucks of the kind that frequent the Lane Street exit, where the Pilot truck stop is located.
Mitchell said the new roundabouts are also designed with a “movable apron” that’s safe for trucks.
“So, the comment that trucks cannot safely navigate them, that’s a layperson speaking,” Mitchell said. “We have the empirical evidence on the ground that trucks can safely navigate them.”
Rader, who is part of an effort to oppose the plans for exit 60, said the N.C. Department of Transportation had agreed to hold another information session the following night, Tuesday.
However, no representative from the transportation department was in attendance.
Mitchell confirmed that no one had attended from Division 10, based in Albemarle.
“I don’t know what promises were made from our Raleigh staff,” Mitchell said.
Kannapolis Director of Public Works Wilmer Melton said that he stepped in and did his best to try to explain the project to the group of citizens who attended.
Also in the audience were several of the area’s elected officials.
Among them was District 76 Rep. Fred Steen, who represents Rowan County in the N.C. General Assembly.
Steen sent an email Tuesday to N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti stating his concerns about the plan.
“While we are glad to have the widening … I think we have way overdone some of this project with roundabouts at interchanges while neglecting other portions along (Interstate 85)…” Steen wrote.
In particular, Steen mentioned the request for an interchange near Old Beatty Ford Road, which he said has been discussed for a long time.
“Many MPO members were not informed on these modifications and were caught off guard and are upset with the entire system,” Steen wrote in his email to Conti.
Steen’s elected successor, Carl Ford, was also reportedly in attendance, as was Rep. Linda Johnson, who represents Cabarrus in the legislature.
Melton said he felt most residents understood that these recommendations are from Raleigh, not from Kannapolis.
He also said he’d spoken with Mitchell after Monday’s council session and reiterated the city’s qualms with the plan.
In addition to expressing the concerns residents had shared, Melton said he had spoken to things the city would like to see addressed.
“The sooner we can address those concerns, the better,” Melton said.
But, Melton said, the city is not at a point of “flat-out opposing” the plan.
“We don’t need to disrupt commerce, we don’t want to have residents displaced unnecessarily,” Melton said.
Melton said the next step will be to meet with Department of Transportation staff in Raleigh to begin reviewing the concerns expressed at a series of public information sessions this month.
“Depending on the types of comments,” Mitchell said, “and the type of options … that would require a lot of time.”
“Right now, we hope to have this project go to letting in June of 2013,” Mitchell said.
That deadline might have to be pushed back, he said, if a major redesign is the result of those discussions.
“Our interest is in delivering this transportation improvement in a timely fashion,” Mitchell said. “The cities have impressed upon us for years that we need to see this changed … we’re trying to deliver the project in a timely fashion.”
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.

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