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Supervisors approve ‘compromise’ U.S. 460 intersection improvements

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DINWIDDIE - Nearly a year to the day of Virginia Department of Transportation’s first showcasing of the concept of a restricted crossing U-turn at an intersection that has become known by locals as a dangerous crossing, supervisors agreed to a phased approach to addressing the intersection’s issues, with some calling it a “compromise” from VDOT’s initial proposal.

Voting 4-0, with Chairman Daniel Lee being absent from last week’s board of supervisors meeting, county leaders gave their support for a phased implementation of a modified median U-turn, which will see the median-adjourning lanes of U.S. Route 460 closed, reducing the roadway to one-lane in each direction in the area of the intersection.

One of the effect of that single-lane closure will be additional capacity in the median area that links U.S. Route 460 and Courthouse Road, allowing large trucks and other heavy commercial vehicles the ability to be able to stop at the currently installed in-median stop signs without having their extended loads potentially blocking lanes of New Cox Road behind them.

Those stop signs were installed as part of temporary improvements rolled out at the intersection following a fatal crash that claimed the life of local teenager Dakota Reid and left several others injured in January of 2019.

While the stop signs, according to local public safety officials, have seemingly helped reduce the frequency of crashes at the intersection with only one accident being reported since their spring 2019 installation, a side effect of those required stops in the median of U.S. Route 460 has seen large tractor-trailers struggle to navigate the intersection, particularly when crossing from Courthouse Road.

With its current layout, when a truck stops at the required in-median stop sign, frequently, their load will extend back into the median-adjourning lane of New Cox Road. As a result, some truckers have opted to disregard the in-median stop sign, thus breaking the law.

Through this phased approach, VDOT representatives explained the temporary improvements from last spring would remain in place and the median would stay open. If accidents were to increase again, the county could request the second phase begin, where the U-turns could be installed and the median closed. The lane reductions would not be affected as they will have already been completed in this first phase.

Also part of the first phase, additional rumble strips and signage would be installed on the approach to the lane drops near the intersection of New Cox and Courthouse Road.

In the lead-up to last week’s decision by supervisors, a number of stakeholders expressed concerns about the proposal to completely reconfigure the intersection into a modified median U-turn, one in a number of “innovative intersections” as described by VDOT.

Some felt the intersection would make driving more unsafe for drivers through its use of U-turns, despite VDOT leaning on statistics that say federal studies show standard restricted crossing U-turns have “an overall reduction in crashes of approximately 34 percent” and fatal and injury crashes 58 percent, while others, such as the logging and agriculture community and Dinwiddie Public Schools’ transportation department questioned how their vehicles will safely navigate the intersection while also having to regain speed to merge into a single lane of travel.

“After the meetings we had with the various stakeholders and addressing most, if not, all of their concerns, we continued to receive feedback that they were just not comfortable with the innovative intersection,” VDOT Residency Administrator Crystal Smith detailed. “This was similar to the public feedback where, while most of the comments indicated some changes were needed, the public just wasn’t comfortable with that innovative intersection design that we had presented.”

After those meetings, Smith said the agency took a step back and began looking at “less invasive” alternatives that would also protect the temporary improvements installed during the spring, with the phased design being presented to county officials in late January.

Speaking to the benefits of a phasing option, Smith said the county will “get an expanded benefit of the April [2019] changes.”

“The phasing plan could be implemented, maintained, and in-place until such time that we see incidents and accidents return or repeat themselves. At that point, Phase 2 could be installed to include the crossovers and closing the median,” she explained. “This would also prepare the traveling public to a portion of the modifications in smaller steps that will make it a little easier for those comments that we received where they still weren’t comfortable with the design of the innovative intersection.”

VDOT stressed that this first phase doesn’t address their goal of dealing with the frequency of angle crashes at the intersection and reducing the number of conflict points at the crossroads.

Robert Vilak, VDOT’s Central Region Traffic Engineer walked through a number of diagrams that detailed conflict points in a traditional four-lane divided highway intersection, 40, with 24 crossing conflicts, a standard MUT configuration, 8, with no crossing conflicts.

According to the agency, the first phase of the MUT would reduce the number of conflicts from 40 to 32, with 16 crossing conflicts, though, some residents questioned if VDOT’s analysis truly captures the intersection’s real-world configuration with the required in-median stop signs and double-yellow lines.

Throughout this project, Dinwiddie supervisors and residents have argued that they believe people are driving too fast along U.S. Route 460 in the area of the Courthouse Road intersection, which carries a speed limit of 60 miles per hour.

In the last year, speed studies have concluded that a speed limit reduction is not warranted for the corridor, with Smith saying in December of last year that it is her belief, even if the speed limit is reduced from 60 to 55, there would not be a significant drop in the corridor’s 85th-percentile speed, which is a measurement of the speed at which a majority of traffic in a given area travels in free-flowing conditions.

For that stretch of U.S. Route 460, that speed is roughly 67 miles per hour, based on last year’s speed study by VDOT and statements by the agency.

In December, it was revealed by VDOT’s Smith that the lane drops could serve to aid in reducing the speed from 60 to 55 but, at that time, there were no official plans to lower the speed limit and the agency said they would not consider a speed limit reduction without the MUT intersection.

During last week’s public information session, while a speed limit reduction isn’t specifically part of this phased project, a speed study is likely to occur once they first phase is completed though, Vilak noted any speed limit changes would likely span from just west of the intersection all the to Claiborne Road.

While fewer residents spoke last week during the county’s public input session than at November’s public hearing on the project, those who did take to the podium called the project a “compromise” between the full MUT proposal while keeping the changes that have seemingly worked to quell accidents so far.

“With this Phase 1, I feel this is a very good compromise to improve the safety of that intersection and to provide the traffic flow through there without a lot of confusion,” Bill Deermyer said. “Even though I know there are conflict points through there, I feel like the points would just be moved around with an RCUT or MUT, so I think this Phase 1 is a very good compromise between the citizens and VDOT.”

Resident Andrew Franzyshen believes the changes made in April of last year were “sufficient,” so as long as VDOT made the temporary improvements permanent, while also advocating for a speed reduction.

“We have heard there can’t be a speed reduction, that is misleading,” he argued. “They can change the speed. The excuse used is the 85th percentile of free-flowing traffic, a guideline set by the Federal Highway Administration in their Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices,” saying that it suggests the posted speed should be “within 5 to 10 miles per hour based on the existing speed and geometry.”

“It suggests that it should be. By law, ‘suggestions’ and ‘should’ are not ‘shall’ and ‘must,’” Franzyshen said, suggesting that the FHWA “gives freedom to states so they can make adjustments based off the community, traffic, and things of that nature,” pointing to the mid-2010s speed limit drop along U.S. Route 460 in Prince George County from just east of Rives Road to the community of Disputanta from 55 to 45 as an example.

“The traffic engineer had made an exception because of a high number of casualties on that road, four over a 42-month period, so Prince George got that speed reduction,” Franzyshen argued. “Dinwiddie County just west of Namozine Road on U.S. Route 460 all the way to the county line has a 67-mile-per-hour 85th percentile speed in a 60-mile-per-hour zone. So a reduction to 55 miles per hour would not be justified by that standard but, there have been 10 fatalities through that corridor in the last 42 months. That would justify an exception.”

Edward Titmus, a local farmer, planning commission member, and Dinwiddie Farm Bureau president also supported the phased approach, saying the complete MUT would be “cumbersome” for heavy vehicles and tractor-trailers, adding that the Farm Bureau is not in favor of VDOT of the MUT or RCUT.

He added that the agency should consider looking at improvement site distance for eastbound U.S. Route 460 and reducing the speed limit to 55 would be a help, as well.

The first phase of the project will cost roughly $20,000, though Smith and VDOT’s engineers were quick to point out that the figure was an estimate and not the fully engineered price tag. That total is lower than the roughly $290,000 the complete MUT implementation was estimated to cost.

Prior to the board’s vote in favor of the first phase of the project, Dinwiddie County Administrator Kevin Massengill spoke, calling the revised proposal “sensible” for all stakeholders involved.

“When this project first started, there were a number of stakeholders, the agricultural community, the logging industry, the school system and bus garage, law enforcement, public safety, and the citizens,” he said. “Sometimes people think people they can’t make a difference and this is one where we had a regulatory agency in VDOT that wanted to listen to the public, especially after they came before the board of supervisors and we have a group of people who didn’t give up on this project.”

“I think, by phasing this in, is a win-win for everyone,” Massengill remarked, thanking VDOT and residents for being engaged and helping to create a “more sensible approach” to addressing the intersection’s needs.

“If we come out of this with some additional concerns, at least we know it is scalable in terms of design and we can go ahead and fully implement something at a later date. If we don’t, we fixed it,” he closed.

While a timetable for the first phase was not revealed last week, in previous communications, VDOT said they were looking to begin work on the project as early as spring of this year.