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Development 101: Traffic, roundabouts, and lights

Traffic — an unfortunate fact of life in a car-based society, and a major factor in planning new developments.

In part three of our ongoing series on the ins and outs of development, WHQR’s Ben Schachtman and Kelly Kenoyer discuss another controversial topic: traffic.

Want the big picture? Development 101: A look at the how the process works in the Cape Fear region

Ben Schachtman: Alright Kelly, one of the biggest complaints we hear about development is the fact that new buildings mean more cars on the road — it’s almost a preemptive Pavlovian road rage response!

Kelly Kenoyer: Absolutely. The prospect of having even more cars to sit behind at a traffic light is not exactly appealing to people. And I can talk all day about how having apartments closer to services actually reduces traffic congestion across the whole community, especially when there’s connectivity… but that doesn’t mean people are excited about an apartment going up next door.

BS: Right, so how, exactly, does the government try to mitigate the traffic impacts from new developments?

KK: So, landowners have a right to access public right of ways, but how that is implemented is regulated. It mostly comes down to the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization, that’s basically our regional transportation planning agency, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Generally speaking, this is a really early part of the development process because some of the requirements take a long time to complete.

BS: Ok, so what do those requirements look like?

KK: Well, the big one is a traffic impact analysis, or TIA. That can take anywhere from 2-3 months for smaller projects, or up to a year for really extensive multi-phase projects. But they’ll also need to get a driveway permit just to make a curb cut, regardless of the development’s size.

BS: So the big one, a TIA… when do they have to do that?

KK: Basically for any development that is expected to generate 100 or more peak hour trips has to do one. That’s the case for a development of 100 or more single-family homes, for example. The Developer is required to hire a certified traffic engineer to look at every impact the development could have on the entire traffic system.

BS: Sure, but I can already hear people objecting: "...then developers will just build a 99-house development and no one will look at it!"

KK: No no, someone still looks at it! NCDOT will do an internal technical review to make sure a smaller development doesn’t have serious impacts on the public right of way.

BS: Ok, ok. So what happens after these reviews and analyses?

KK: Basically, NCDOT will look at the findings and decide if the developer needs to make roadway improvements. That’ll happen if there’s a substantial increase in delay at an intersection or if a turn lane will end up full. When that happens, NCDOT will require the developer to build improvements.

BS: What kind of improvements can be mandated?

KK: It could be anything from requiring a new traffic signal to go in, to constructing a turn lane or a roundabout. And while that leads to the short-term inconvenience of road construction, Scott James, the Traffic Engineer at the WMPO, says the public ultimately benefits from it.

Scott James: “Don't overlook the fact that we've got signals going in, paid for with private dollars. We've got roadways being expanded with private dollars. We've got new markings and new connections, sometimes even new school connections with private dollars. The government requires that, but the citizens benefit.”

BS: That is an interesting take — I mean, look at Military Cutoff and Eastwood Road, where The Avenue and Centerpoint are going, both major mixed-use developments. We will get things like new turn lanes and signalized intersections on the developers’ dime – but, frankly, both of those roads will also be pushed way over capacity. At the same time, though, NCDOT often won’t invest in improving a road until its quality really deteriorates. So, it’s kind of a frustrating irony, sometimes you have to break a roadway before NCDOT will fix it.

KK: That is true. NCDOT has an extremely limited budget, so I think they appreciate the opportunity to foist some improvements onto developers. And NCDOT still designs those improvements before the developer builds them and pays for them. That can be a pain point for developers because it can take a long time – also because of NCDOT’s chronic funding problems. I talked to one developer who almost had an entire project derailed because he didn’t have the traffic light completely finished in time — because the designs took months to receive. I think NCDOT’s funding problems slow down developers, but it also is a serious driver of our traffic flow problems.

BS: And don’t even get me started on a replacement for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge — but, that’s a story for another day. For now, thanks for digging into it Kelly.

KK: You’re welcome! And I’ll see you again tomorrow for the conclusion of this series: stormwater.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.
Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.