By Nathan Ham
It was a standing-room-only crowd at the Boone Town Council Chambers on Tuesday morning for what may very well have been the final time that the public will get speak up about the proposed Highway 105 Superstreet project.
Questions from town council members to North Carolina Department of Transportation representatives were fielded and several town business owners and residents shared their thoughts on the project, both for and against it. There was even a tearful plea from an eighth-grade student hoping that the NCDOT would not tear down her dance studio as part of the project.
Ann Mellon, an eighth grader in Watauga County that lives off of Highway 105, said that she spends 11 hours a week dancing at Northwestern Studios, located above the Oil Exchange on Highway 105 and Project Dance, which is also located on Highway 105. In the latest draft proposal, the Northwestern Studios building was in an area that may have to be torn down to make room for one of the U-turn bulb-outs.
“I’ve been dancing there since I was a little kid. I don’t want to lose my dance studio,” Ann said.
Prior to the public comment period, Mike Pettyjohn, NCDOT Division 11 Engineer and Ramie Shaw, NCDOT Division 11 Project Team Lead, each stood up and fielded some questions from Boone Town Council members and made comments about the revisions to the plan.
“These are all the results of the comments we received from the council, the county and the public from October. These are revisions that were made. Whether we go forward or not with the project really depends on the outcome of these meetings,” said Pettyjohn. “It is a design to help reduce conflict, which improves the safety of the traveling public and improves the efficiency of the roadway as well. We did take the public comments that we got and we did revise several of the intersections and bulbs that we had.”
Shaw addressed some of the concerns centered around sidewalks, retaining walls and bike lanes, saying that a municipal agreement between the NCDOT and the Town of Boone would take care of those issues.
According to Boone Town Manager John Ward, the town would be responsible for 30 percent of the cost for new sidewalks.
“If an existing sidewalk is there, it will be replaced, but if a new sidewalk is added, which a lot of this will be, it is a 70-30 split,” said Ward.
As the meeting turned to the public comment period, most of the speakers were still opposed to the project in its current form.
“It seems to me a turning lane is what we need all the way down to Wendy’s. We also need strict enforcement of the speed limit on 105, coordination of the current traffic signals and perhaps the addition of another one or two traffic signals,” said Lynn White, who lives just off of Highway 105. “I am concerned with increased traffic in the neighborhood where I live that goes up to Poplar Hill. I think there is going to be a lot of increased traffic during construction in the two or three years, whatever amount of time it takes for the proposed project.”
Barbara Julien, who is also a resident in a neighborhood accessed off of Highway 105, was concerned about the cost and design of the project.
“Is it not wise to first try something less expensive on the taxpayers, such as adding a turn lane all the way down 105? Traffic accidents are partly due to the fact that the turn lane is inconsistent. People get used to it and all of a sudden it’s taken away,” said Julien. “There is disruption to access to our homes forever with this project.”
Stephanie West spoke briefly about bicycle and pedestrian travel along the highway. West was speaking on behalf of Harmony Lanes, a group of concerned citizens in the High Country that advocate for safe transportation models for vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. West said she hoped that the project would be able to add a “protected and buffered” lane for walkers and cyclists where they would have a median or barrier between the bike/pedestrian lane and the vehicle lanes of travel.
Businesses have been the most vocal about the plan so far. J.P. Pardy, the owner of Recess Snow & Skate, feels like the road should be treated much more like a business street than just a highway to get through Boone.
“I ask customers every day how many people are driving past the (105) bypass when they come in and out of the shop. Most of them say they do not. Most of them are coming from their homes or going to another business,” Pardy said. “I’m sure the road will work in a sense when it’s all done, but how many businesses will survive the construction phase? People are going to avoid this road at all costs, I think, for probably five years.”
Councilman Sam Furgiuele asked Pardy, who rents the building where Recess Skate & Snow is located if his business would be able to survive the construction phase.
“I think absolutely not. I just think people will avoid 105,” Pardy said.
There were some speakers that spoke in favor of the project. Chris Laine sees a lot of positives in the project for businesses and safety.
“Local businesses failed to mention the upside of widening 105, which will ultimately increase the number of potential customers passing by every day. Highway expansion to accommodate more vehicles gives way to more shoppers. By limiting access and improving safety, what becomes a modest inconvenience is more than offset by increased customers reaching business doors,” said Laine. “I don’t see businesses evaporating along an improved Highway 105.”
In terms of safety, Laine feels like it should be an easy decision.
“How does convenience compare to the ability to arrive safely? Given the choice, would you choose convenience over reliability if your personal safety were at stake? Having had too many close calls on 105 myself, I say no,” Laine added.
Cullie Tarleton, who is a board member representing NCDOT Division 11 was on hand to add additional comments and was pleased to see a large number of citizens turn out for this meeting.
“I think we have heard some excellent comments here today. Obviously, we believe this is an important project for the town of Boone and the county of Watauga, and safety is our primary concern. If this project goes forward, I hope that it does, as we get into it, if we can determine if there are other changes that can be made to accommodate some concerns, we will be more than happy to consider those changes,” Tarleton said. “Time is of the essence. If this project is to go forward, we need a decision. I urge the council to make a decision as quickly as possible because we’ve already lost a lot of time. We need to hear from you so we can make a decision whether or not to proceed with this project.”
The NCDOT did not have a list of businesses that could potentially be lost at the meeting. An email from the High Country Press sent to the NCDOT seeking a list of these establishments has not been returned as of Thursday morning.