Red light gets the green light

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Tennessee Department of Transportation has decided to let Lewisburg install traffic control signals at North Ellington Parkway's intersection with Rock Crusher Road and North Fifth Avenue.

That crossroads near Lawler's Barbecue, Dr. Carter Woodson's office, a BP station and Stan McNabb's Ford Mercury dealership is widely recognized as congested, difficult to negotiate from side streets, and the site of recurring wrecks.

TDOT's chief engineer, Paul Degges, called City Manager Eddie Fuller and Marshall County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett early this week asking who should get official notification letters, Fuller said. Mayor Bob Phillips will get a letter, but nobody cared who received it.

"We've been asking for this for three or four years," Fuller said Wednesday.

A concerted effort to persuade TDOT was mounted with leaders on all levels of this community calling, writing letters and generally advocating a traffic control system at the intersection.

"There's an old saying; 'The squeaky wheel gets the grease,'" Liggett said. "We've been the squeaky wheel. It's been a combined effort by state officials, on down."

Fuller noted Councilman Robin Minor's campaign for office in the spring of 2007 found recurring requests from residents in his Ward, so he took it on as his project, starting with calls to the governor's office.

While Minor learned he "needed to go through the process," the councilman may have been the more active player in the quest, Fuller said.

Phillips said that on a scale of one to 10, getting approval for the light "is a 10... from a political stand-point, but I'm sure there will be some headaches because the two traffic lights are so close."

Within a quarter mile, there's a light at the KFC restaurant.

"There might be some traffic backups, but as i understand it, lights will stay green on the bypass unless somebody drives up" to the intersection from a side street, the mayor said.

State Sen. Bill Ketron and Rep. Eddie Bass were receptive to requests for help from local leaders, but at least one resident made the case directly to Bass.

After the 2007 Veterans Day ceremony on the east lawn of the County Courthouse, a resident pressed the issue with Fuller who agreed.

"Go talk to that man over there," Fuller said he told the man, pointing to Bass, adding that he'd be an important person to persuade. Bass got the message, again.

That fall, Liggett and County Roads Superintendent Jerry Williams hosted a meeting at the county garage with a variety of officials.

Ali Faranghi, a TDOT engineer who deals with traffic issues for the department's Region 3, "said there wasn't enough traffic coming from Rock Crusher Road or North Fifth Avenue," Fuller reported from the meeting at the county roads office.

Since then, Ascend Credit Union opened a new branch nearby and the Marshall County Board of Public Utilities has purchased a building for a shop on Rock Crusher Road, and three restaurants have recently opened in the area.

"Our argument was that people know you can't get out at the intersection, so they avoid it," Fuller said.

Thursday morning, Degges, a long-time TDOT engineer, said official notification might be issued that afternoon, adding that growth in traffic was revealed by a recent study here.

"It's a big deal down there," Degges said from his Nashville office. "I know they've got some real desires for this location."

TDOT's hesitation focused on liabilities if there was insufficient traffic.

"If you put a signal in when you don't have warrants (a standard measurement of traffic justifying installation of a light), you can have an increase in rear end crashes," Degges said.

That implies government liability if a light is installed too early, he said.

"We have been looking at this intersection for at least two years," Degges continues. "In recent weeks, were able to look at traffic again.

"We've done an analysis," he said. "It meets the appropriate warrants for a traffic signal. We've looked at growth in the area."

Eight-hour time segments were examined and the criteria were met, Degges said. TDOT also "looked at the history of crashes at the location."

Fuller said wreck reports were assembled to provide evidence of need for a light.

Liggett said, "The accident reports had a lot to do with the justification... I haven't been hit there, but there have been numerous people who have."

A change in drivers' behavior was also cited.

"Our argument was that people know you can't get out, so they would avoid the intersection," Fuller said.

Such issues were discussed at length during a meeting several months ago at TDOT headquarters between local leaders and several TDOT officials, Fuller said. Ketron attended. Bass did too, despite other pressing matters, Fuller said.

"Joe Liggett pleaded our case," the city manager said. While there haven't been any fatalities at the intersection, Fuller said, the number of wrecks was documented.

A response was promised and, on Nov. 13, Minor asked Fuller to make follow-up calls and that led to a round of telephone tag that ended Monday.

TDOT's letter will authorize the city to install the light at its own expense. Degges said he doesn't have a cost analysis, but reported city officials "have told me they are ready to apply resources to put the signal in. It should expedite the situation."

If the state paid for the light, Degges would draw on federal funding and that would delay installation, he said.

"I'm sure," Fuller said, "we'll have to hire a traffic engineer and submit plans to the state for their review and approval."

That's on advise from Lewisburg Electric Manager Richard Turner.

"There are plans to widen the bypass," Fuller said of North Ellington Parkway between Nashville Highway and Franklin Pike.

That five-lane project would interfere with the placement of the traffic lights, the city manager said. The lights won't be hung from wires across the intersection. They'd be mounted on so-called mast-arms so that when the bypass is widened, those installations' bases could be abandoned and the arms relocated.

"If we waited for the bypass to be widened, that the state would install the lights," Fuller said. "But, do we want to wait that long?"

When the road might be widened remains an unanswerable question. Widening of Mooresville Highway has depended on a bid opening that's been rescheduled, again, until spring.

The mayor note another reason why for the state to hesitate to approve a light: "When industry looking to relocate, one of the things they ask is, 'How many red lights must you go through to get there?'"

Lewisburg's Business Park continues to develop on Mooresville Highway, the other major path into Lewisburg from Interstate 65.