Council members debate changing speed limit on North Third Street

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Top: Third Street less than two blocks north of Market Street. Bottom: Third Street less than two blocks south of Market Street. Photos by Hannah Leyva.
Top: Third Street less than two blocks north of Market Street. Bottom: Third Street less than two blocks south of Market Street. Photos by Hannah Leyva.

Three ordinances reducing speed limits around Wilmington were on the city council’s agenda Tuesday night, and while two of them passed unanimously without incident, the third one drew divided reaction.

The first ordinance took the speed limit on Orchard Trace, which is in the Magnolia Plantation subdivision off Masonboro Sound Road, down from 35 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour.

According to Wilmington Traffic Engineering Manager Don Bennett, the request for the reduction came from the residents themselves. Following the end of the neighborhood traffic management program in 2009, the city’s traffic engineering department has been taking requests from neighborhoods.

“This is one of the first neighborhoods that came forward and offered to circulate a petition for this street,” Bennett said. “The residents did show overwhelming support for reducing their speed limit to 25 [miles per hour].”

The petition was put out by the head of the subdivision’s homeowners association, and Bennett said that after cross-checking it with property records, nearly all of the owners in the area had signed it. In addition to asking for the speed to be reduced, the signees also committed to voluntarily abiding by the new speed, according to the city.

The ordinance passed unanimously.

The speed limit was also reduced from 35 mph to 25 mph on 30th, 31st, Evans, Clay and Henry Streets between Princess Place Drive and Market Street. This request, according to Bennett, also came as a result of a petition circulated by a resident new to the area.

“She had walked up and down each and every one of these streets and done the door-knocking and put down the footwork to bring this to me,” Bennett said. “Again, [it showed] consensus of the neighborhood and agreement between residents who were most affected by these changes.”

All six council members present (Councilman Neil Anderson was traveling for work) voted to approve the changes.

The third speed limit-related ordinance, however, did not have the same consensus.

The debated item involved reducing the speed limit on North Third Street in downtown –  currently partially closed due to bridge construction work by the North Carolina Department of Transportation – from 35 mph to 25 mph. The scope of the ordinance extended from Market Street north to Bladen Street, a stretch of road that includes Wilmington City Hall and the New Hanover County Historic Courthouse, which is where the County Commissioners hold their board meetings.

The street is the widest in downtown Wilmington. According to Bennett, the recommendation came from staff in anticipation of the opening of the bridge, which was set for early April but has been delayed.

“Inasmuch as our commuting public has become accustomed to using some of our 25 mph streets to access downtown, they’re used to driving that speed and incurring a little bit of delay as they deviate from their normal path,” said Bennett. “It’s estimated that they will still continue to save time, even if they’re driving 25 [mph] on Third Street from Bladen Street … southward to Market Street.”

Bennett also cited new developments on the north end of Third Street, such as City Block Apartments, as impetus for the changes.

“As these areas on both sides of Third Street continue to develop, pedestrian access across this roadway will increase,” Bennett said. “This seizes on the opportunity of people having been accustomed to driving slower speeds on surrounding streets with the bridge closure.”

That same pedestrian access was part of Councilman Kevin O’Grady’s concern. He said it didn’t make sense to lower the speed limit in a well-lit commercial area with several crosswalks and pedestrian signals already in place.

“We’re proposing this to lower the speed limit down till it gets to the residential neighborhood, and then we can’t do anything after that,” O’Grady said. “In the residential area, we have no lights until Castle Street, so it’s a straightaway.”

Between Market and Castle Streets, a stretch of six blocks, Third Street becomes more residential, with trees replacing street lamps and historic homes replacing banks and government buildings.

“We have one crosswalk, which has become more dangerous because it has a yellow flashing light that is disobeyed by many drivers,” O’Grady continued. “It’s residential, so we have people crossing the street with their dogs, with their baby carriages, children going to school, and we’re not doing anything about that.”

From Market Street on south, Third Street becomes a DOT road, which means the city can’t adjust the speed limits. While O’Grady conceded that fact, he asked staff to go back to the state agency and ask for that change.

“If we’re going to lower the speed limit on Third down to Market Street, that means the residential area becomes where you accelerate,” O’Grady said. “You’re increasing the danger to those residential areas, so we need to go back to DOT with these facts and get them to see the wisdom of lowering the speed limit.”

Councilmen Earl Sheridan and Charlie Rivenbark agreed.

“It seems like the residential area needs the 25 [mph] more than this particular area,” Sheridan said.

“I’m not in favor of this … They’re going to be poking along and all of a sudden they’re going to hit that Market Street, and it’s ‘Katie, bar the door!'” said Rivenbark, using a phrase commonly meaning “watch out” or “get ready for trouble.”

The ordinance failed when the council split 3 – 3 on their vote. Though Mayor Bill Saffo said he agreed the speed limit should be slower in the residential areas, he voted in favor of making the changes at hand, along with Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes and Councilman Paul Lawler. O’Grady, Sheridan and Rivenbark all dissented.

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