As concerns mount, Del. Aird joins VDOT, county officials at Rt. 460
DINWIDDIE – Weeks after the Virginia Department of Transportation shared another revision to the proposed modified median intersection planned to be installed at the site of several serious accidents, Delegate Lashrecse Aird (D-63) made her way to Dinwiddie to see the crossroads first-hand after her office received emails regarding concerns about the transportation agency’s plans.
Wednesday, Aird joined VDOT residency administrators Crystal Smith and Scott Thornton, along with with Sheriff D.T. Adams, Dinwiddie Fire and EMS Chief Dennis Hale, County Administrator Kevin Massengill along with representatives from the Virginia Loggers Association for a meeting at the intersection of U.S. Route 460 and Courthouse Road to learn more about VDOT plans for a modified median intersection, which the agency believes will make the crossing safer in the wake of recent crashes, including one that claimed the life of a Dinwiddie teenager in January.
Since the spring, VDOT proposed the development of a restricted crossing U-turn intersection for the crossroad, before opting to refine their plans to then eliminate left-turn movement completely through the use of a modified median u-turn, with many of the recent refinements to the intersection coming since August, when the agency opted to delay construction of the RCUT to allow for additional public comment.
During Aird’s visit last week, she was briefed on the history of the intersection by Chief Hale and Sheriff Adams, who are intimately familiar with the area given their combined experience with emergency response and selective enforcement at the intersection.
“There are a couple of different types of accidents we see here,” Hale detailed. “What used to happen a lot years ago was vehicles leaving the southbound side of Courthouse Road and striking people as they went by [on U.S. Route 460]. It is like they didn’t even see them.”
He continued, “What we have seen more recently, the lights seem to do a lot with fixing this,” referring to the flashing signal installed at the intersection currently, “as we saw the number of accidents go down initially but, what we are seeing now is people are crossing, getting to the [median], and are getting struck by westbound traffic,” noting that several accidents prior to the temporary changes that were put in at the intersection in the spring – which included stop signs in the median to force drivers to observe oncoming traffic before crossing – had similar characteristics.”
Since those changes, Hale said they have only had one accident at the intersection.
“What was happening in some of the accidents is people would stop [at the stop sign on Courthouse Road] and they have pretty good sight distance all the way to the end but, they weren’t stopping in the [median]. They were going all the way across so, trying to judge that distance with that speed, we just feel like that was the issue so stopping them in the middle was an interim fix until something else could be done.”
That “something else” continues to look increasingly like the implementation of a modified median U-turn intersection, which would eliminate left and through traffic movement at the intersection and require drivers to utilize installed u-turns on either side of U.S. Route 460 to then make their way onto Courthouse Road.
Since October, when the public was able to provide feedback on the project to VDOT, the plans have been revised, with current renderings showing U.S. Route 460 would be reduced to a single lane of 60-mile-per-hour traffic in the approach to the intersection in either direction and resuming two-lane travel roughly 500 feet after drivers pass the u-turn locations.
For the logging community, which is a key part of the county’s economic makeup, both the current intersection configuration and the current proposals present challenges for drivers, according to representatives from the Virginia Loggers Association who where on-hand for last week’s tour. In speaking with Aird and others, it was revealed by the association the current layout, which requires drivers to stop in the median before proceeding, causes their trailers to protrude into a travel lane of U.S. Route 460.
As a result, at times, log trucks and other vehicles with extended loads will stop at the Courthouse Road stop sign and then proceed through the intersection without stopping at the installed median stop sign, something witnessed by Aird, VDOT and local officials during their rush-hour visit to the crossroads.
When it comes to the proposed layout of the intersection, VLA has questioned if there is enough room within the u-turn paths to allow trucks to safely move through the intersection, with those concerns being shared by bus drivers and local farmers who regularly use the intersection to transport large farm equipment, according to county officials.
In November, Thornton told the Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors the two u-turn locations were adjusted based on feedback garnered during October’s public comment period, saying they have “[increased] the radius and amount of pavement being put in so that will accommodate larger vehicles.”
Another aspect of the design that has drawn questions is the concern of reducing traffic down to one lane through the area of the intersection without reducing the speed limit, with some residents pointing out after VDOT’s November report to the board of supervisors that they are concerned there may be a significant speed difference between someone traveling along U.S. Route 460 at speed and another driver exiting the u-turn and transitioning over to the right to turn onto Courthouse Road.
Reducing the speed limit has been something the county has vocally supported for months, with County Administrator Massengill saying earlier this year, “The board unanimously feels that an average motorist speed of 67 miles per hour at that intersection is not ideal. We feel like people need to slow down going through that intersection.” In the spring, following a county request for a speed study, VDOT told the county that a speed reduction at that section of U.S. Route 460 was “not warranted,” along with warrants not being met for a full-functioning traffic signal.
The agency has maintained that stance throughout the development of the RCUT, adding that the road has been designated by the General Assembly as a limited-access highway for the transport of commerce.
“There are still a lot of folks who believe a signalized intersection is the ideal fix here but, as far as VDOT is concerned, we feel like this is the best option to get the best results,” referring to the modified median u-turn configuration, saying a traffic light “would cost much more, you would still have the potential for conflict points with t-bones and fatalities, and we don’t meet the warrants for a signal anyway.”
According to Smith, a traffic signal, if warrants were met, would require the installation of new poles and other infrastructure, likely costing upwards of several hundred thousand dollars as the current poles were not designed to carry the weight of traditional traffic signals and, due to the width of the intersection, Thornton said it’s likely poles would have to be installed in the median.
When asked about a speed reduction by Aird and Sheriff Adams, Smith explained, “The concern here would be you would have the few people who would abide by the speed limit and the rest of them would be flying up on [other drivers] doing the speed limit they feel comfortable with,” referring back to the 85th percentile speed – which is the speed VDOT found 85 percent of drivers recorded through the area during their study to be traveling, 67 miles per hour.
In speaking with the delegate and local leaders, Smith did not rule out some form of speed reduction, saying “We have been working with our traffic engineers to see if there is a way to lower it a little bit.”
“If they can come to an agreement, it probably wouldn’t be less than 55 [miles per hour] and we probably wouldn’t see a [significant drop] in the 85th percentile,” she said, adding, as part of the modified median u-turn, they would “add double sets of rumble strips as you approach the intersection, which would naturally give people the effect of letting off the gas a little bit.”
For Adams, a lower speed limit is more enforceable for him and his deputies.
“If they lower the speed limit, I can enforce it,” he shared with Delegate Aird. “Right now, they can’t enforce it and I have heard some talk made by the state that says we are not enforcing the speed down here. We are. We right hundreds of tickets a month out here and I have a big selective enforcement program here. If they lower the speed limit, we will enforce it.”
In addition to the speed concerns and the radius of the u-turns, concerns about effectively closing the single lanes were raised as current plans call for traditional painted stripping to denote the closed section of roadway with officials arguing that would likely not be enough to stop a driver from making an illegal pass in the area of the intersection along U.S. Route 460. During last week’s meeting, Smith said she believes those occurrences would be extremely isolated.
“I don’t think you will see a whole lot of people doing that,” saying its not seen in areas with similar configurations elsewhere in the district. “We haven’t heard about it and we haven’t seen accidents from it.”
“I think they realized it is so financially friendly, Smith said referring to the use of innovative intersections, “and the results that you get from that design you don’t see from other intersection designs so I think it is being promoted because of that,” adding that the intersection is “friendly to modification in the future.”
“Not that we design for changes but, if the fire department were to run into issues, we can make some modifications and things like that,” she explained to the delegate, with Thornton adding, when asked about the construction of the intersection, it is VDOT’s expectation to start “as soon as temperatures are favorable in March or April” of next year.
“We think we can get it built in about a month or a month-and-a-half,” he said, with Smith noting the project would be constructed “with state forces.” In October, VDOT said the project would cost $295,000 based on the design presented at that time, with roughly $300,000 in funding from a project along Ritchie Avenue being rerouted to help pay for design and construction.
While VDOT, according to Smith, “has met its obligations” when it comes to public meetings, referring to the meeting held in October at Eastside, she said VDOT will work with the county in holding another public meeting in February to bring forth any changes or adjustments to the current design. The meeting is one Aird and her office plans to attend even though the General Assembly will be in session after hearing from concerned residents, which led to her visiting the intersection last week.
“I saw a number of emails come to my office with questions about the proposal that had been put forth and you can’t really capture the essence of how constituents were feeling just by virtue of the email so I wanted to say I personally understood and that I had the most accurate information as possible to respond,” she said.
The delegate continued, “Even on my way here, I could see how that intersection feels problematic. I think that, literally, the proposal that is being put forth has an impact on lives and its a difference between life and death. As much as we can alleviate any other accidents and or any other loss of life, it is just that important. It is not just another change, it is at a level of seriousness.”
Having a broad spectrum of leaders from Dinwiddie, including public safety, law enforcement, and the logging community, and VDOT on-hand last week was important for Aird.
“All of these people have an entity involved in the decision being made here,” she said. “We are collectively all responsible for the final decision that gets made here so to be here, drive through it, and see it and observe it helps guide us through the decision making process in addition to hearing from the experts.”