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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Independence Blvd. improvements could be coming down the pipe earlier than expected

Residents have raised concerns over the Independence Boulevard and River Road intersection, requesting improvements be made sooner than planned. (Courtesy Michelle Clegg)

WILMINGTON — Residents living in the southern portion of Wilmington may achieve some traffic relief sooner than anticipated.

READ MORE: Mayor considers potential transportation bond following Riverlights residents’ plea for improvements

The downside is it may not come in the form they want.

The city has conducted a traffic study of the corridor to find solutions to offer residents some reprieve. The city is recommending a roundabout, instead of a traffic signal, much to the dismay of property owners.

A group of neighbors living in Riverlights, Del Webb, and surrounding communities have been expressing their concerns to Wilmington City Council about traffic and safety along River Road for at least the last six months.

They submitted a petition with more than 1,000 signatures requesting the city consider road improvements to make it easier to travel along River Road, especially at the Independence Boulevard intersection.

Residents have spoken at multiple city council meetings, including again on Tuesday, urging the city to take action quickly. They say cars are often 30-deep waiting at the stop sign currently at the Independence Boulevard and River Road intersection, raising concerns emergency vehicles would be blocked trying to get in or out, especially during peak travel times.

They would like to see Independence Boulevard widened from two lanes to four. The latter is a project scheduled for more than a decade out, according to Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range plan.

The area residents have also asked for a traffic signal at Independence and River Road.

City engineer Denise Freund explained at Tuesday’s council meeting why a roundabout is the better option. She said the traffic study done by Michael Baker in 2022 preferred the roundabout, as it “performed better” than a signal.

Freund explained since vehicles travel at lower speeds through a roundabout, there are less opportunities for crashes; the accidents that do happen would be less severe due to the reduced rate of travel. Also, a roundabout keeps traffic moving, so there would be less idling cars, as there would be at a traffic signal, therefore being better for air quality in the city.

Mayor Bill Saffo referenced the roundabout at Porters Neck, which he said “seems to be working well.”

One resident raised a concern about the many container trucks that travel to the Port of Wilmington along the the River Road and Independence Boulevard corridor. Steve McNair did not believe a roundabout would be suitable for trucks and larger vehicles, though Freund confirmed it is considered in the design.

Roundabouts are typically constructed with an additional concrete apron larger vehicles drive over to travel around the circle.

“The radius of the roundabout addresses the type of vehicles that would it support,” she said. “There’s accommodation of large trucks as part of the preliminary and concept designs working with the developer.”

Freund was referring to Cape Fear Commercial, with which the city is negotiating as the company plans its Watermark development right at the problem area. The project, less than half a mile from Riverlights, will add 248 apartment units and 434 parking spaces to the already bustling location.

As part of the Watermark development, another traffic impact analysis was done by Kimley Horn. It had the same results as the city’s 2022 study and pointed to a traffic circle as the best solution and as a way to meet the requirements. 

Riverlights already has an agreement with the city for road improvements planned for 2030 — or when the 2,290th residential unit receives its certificate of occupancy, whichever comes first.

Riverlights spokesperson Margee Herring said there are currently 2,700 residents in Riverlights.

Cape Fear Commercial partner Mike Brown said CFC approached Riverlights about partnering on the improvements, sharing the costs and accelerating the project.

“We’ll contribute our pro-rata share based on tripped generation [by Watermark], and Riverlights has the incentive to move it forward,” Brown told Port City Daily on a call Friday. “The end result was a concept plan, that at a high level we thought would work.”

Brown confirmed Riverlights and CFC will split the cost, up to $1.2 million. 

The city also got on board, requesting additional work — a sidewalk connection, a right turn lane in front of Riverfront Place and storm drains to tie it all into one solution.

The city would be responsible for any remaining expenses above $1.2 million, though negotiations are not yet finalized, Brown said. 

He said a meeting is set up next week between all three entities to iron out details so they can proceed with design and construction.

“It seems to be headed in the right direction,” he said. “I’m optimistic. I think we’ll get it all accomplished.”

The timeline for the widening of Independence Boulevard from two lanes to four could be advanced if accepted by NCDOT this fall for its long-range strategic plan. (Courtesy Michelle Clegg)

Road widening

Estimated to cost $23.6 million, the Independence Road widening is on the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s radar. The organization included it in itslist for consideration this fall by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. It’s currently slated for 2035; though, If accepted by NCDOT for its next 10-year strategic plan, the timeline could advance.

READ MORE: Revival of Cape Fear Crossing? One of 60 local projects considered for state funding

According to internal emails obtained by Port City Daily, at least a dozen people have reached out to WMPO in support of the project being included for state funding, in turn moving moving up the schedule.

WMPO’s congestion management plan also calls out the Independence Boulevard and Carolina Beach Road intersection as a hotspot, 1.4 miles from the Independence Boulevard and River Road intersection. Out of 70 total points, the intersection earned only a 40 in terms of travel time reliability, confirming significant delays during morning and evening peak hours.

The city’s ad hoc transportation committee — comprising council members Charlie Rivenbark and Neil Anderson, as well as Mayor Bill Saffo — has been exploring options to accelerate the widening Independence Boulevard.

Deputy city manager Thom Moton told council Tuesday city and WMPO staff are also reviewing funding options, including infrastructure grants, phased construction through the capital improvement plan and bond opportunities to aid in the construction of the project.

At the behest of residents urging the city to advance its timeline on road improvements in the Riverlights corridor, Mayor Saffo told city staff to begin exploring a transportation bond for 2026. In it, he would like to see the Independence Boulevard widening and additional traffic improvements for the southern portion of the city.

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