New Hanover Co. Commissioners frustrated by proposal to lower River Rd. speed limit

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — The New Hanover County Commissioners held a regularly scheduled meeting on Monday morning and heard a proposal from the North Carolina Department of Transportation that they largely were unimpressed with.

NCDOT Division 3 Traffic Engineer Jessi Leonard shared a brief proposal on lowering the speed limit on River Road to 45 mph from 55 mph. Leonard said the initial concern came from one citizen and then a couple of local cycling club members requested the speed limit to be lowered as well.

Commission Chair Julia Olson-Boseman and Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Jr. questioned what would happen if the commissioners opposed the idea. Leonard said there could be more discussions and NCDOT could collect more data to be shared in a less formal setting.

“Are you going to do it anyway, no matter if we’re opposed to it?” Olson-Boseman asked.

“Our hope would be to proceed with it,” Leonard said.

Olson-Boseman went on to share that she was very opposed to the idea, saying the last thing that needs to be done is slowing down traffic going in and out of Pleasure Island.

“I understand bikers and I support them and I support health and fitness, but they were mainly built for traffic,” Olson-Boseman said. “We need alternate access, we don’t need to slow down traffic going on and off of the beach. So I am totally opposed to it. I don’t need more information from you because I live down there.”

Commissioner Barfield asked why the idea had not been brought before the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, an organization that Barfield and Vice Commission Chair Deb Hayes serve on.

“Is there a reason why that we have a 13 member board, of which 12 are elected officials, and we’ve not had a conversation around this?” Barfield asked.

Leonard explained that it’s because the road is not in a municipality, so there’s not a required municipal certificate to proceed with the lowering or increasing of a speed limit. She said that’s the reason they came to the county because they would typically work with a municipality.

“Then you come to us and ignore what we say,” Olson-Boseman said.

Leonard said that is not their intention. She said they have documentation of several wrecks involving pedestrians and bicycles on River Road, so the lowered speed limit would be necessary to keep them safe on that road. Olson-Boseman then suggested the NCDOT advocate for a separate lane for bikes and pedestrians similar to the set up in River Lights to prevent the vehicle traffic from being slowed down.

“If it was in front of a school or something and you were telling me kids were unsafe riding their bikes to school it would be totally different, but it’s not,” Olson-Boseman said. “It’s on the only other access, other than 421, to Pleasure Island.”

Leonard said the NCDOT is not opposed to an additional multi-use path for bicycles and pedestrians, going on to say that they typically do not install those because they do not maintain them. It would be left up to the county to maintain the path.

Commissioner Barfield went on to ask again why the WMPO had not heard a presentation on the proposal. Noting that in the past, DOT has a 55-percent weight in decisions that are made, saying, “DOT is going to do what DOT wants to do, regardless of what the local communities request.”

Commissioner Rob Zapple asked if there’s a large percentage of cyclists that use River Road. Leonard said the Cape Fear Cyclists bring up River Road annually. Zapple asked if Leonard estimated hundreds or thousands of cyclists using the road, Leonard said she did not have that information.

Zapple circled back to Leonard’s point that there had been documented accidents and/or deaths involving pedestrians and cyclists. The commissioner asked Leonard how many they had documented, Leonard said she did not have the exact number, but she would work to get the information.

Commissioner Bill Rivenbark asked why the NCDOT couldn’t just build the bike path and the county maintain it, Leonard said she was not able to promise that but could take the suggestion back to the NCDOT.

Commissioner Hayes asked what the average speed was during the speed data collection, Leonard said the average speed was 63 mph.

Before concluding the presentation, Zapple, Barfield, and Hayes requested more information be shared with the WMPO.

Olson-Boseman added, “We want to keep cyclists safe, don’t get me wrong at all. I feel like there’s a better way, we can do things better. I think we would like to find an alternative solution with us all working together instead of y’all coming down here and telling us ‘we’re going to do this to y’all, too bad.’ Instead of us looking for a solution, which I think we would all like to see a separate path down River Road that all of our citizens can enjoy.”

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