Sunday, July 14, 2024

City takes first step at fixing traffic conditions on UNCW’s front door

College Road just north of its intersection with Oleander Drive late Friday morning. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)
College Road, a massive corridor that fronts UNCW, evolved into a highway despite the surge of students living in the area. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON—The swelling of UNCW’s campus population brought with it an expanded landscape of student housing in Wilmington. Apartment complexes catering to college students, while once predominantly nestled nearby the university, are now spread to streets further west, across from College Road. 

With College Road — especially at the intersection of Randall Drive — now serving as a pedestrian hub for the university’s commuters, the area’s lackluster walkability is back in the spotlight. 

“If there was a cycle in that stoplight out there at Randall and College where no traffic moved, I wouldn’t be as nervous as I am, but even when the kids get the walk light, there’s still cars turning,” said Councilor Charlie Rivenbark. 

Rivenbark proposed a resolution at Tuesday’s council meeting to get moving on a “feasibility study” for the area that would shape and inform any future traffic solution. Options proposed in the past range from improvements to the intersection to a full-blown skybridge, like the one connecting New Hanover High School over Market Street. 

During a previous stint on city council in the ’90s, Rivenbark made a similar push.

“I made a couple of runs at it at that time, and it just never seemed to get any traction,” he said. The situation became deeply personal to him, he added, after his son was struck by a car while bike-riding close to Wrightsville Beach in 2011.

“I’ve seen so many close calls there,” he said about the College-Randall intersection. “I tried to have a meeting with the college, and it just wasn’t on their menu.”

That was a decade ago, Rivenbark said.

In the past few years, the local division engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation got behind the goal of studying solutions for the area, he added. At the same time, Chancellor Jose Sartarelli of UNCW, who arrived in 2015, was working to grow the student population; he was receptive to the idea, Rivenbark said. 

“UNCW has always been a regional partner in enhancing bike-ped transportation for students and employees, providing staff to participate in transportation planning processes, partnering with Wave Transit, partnering on the Cross City Trail, and leading the area with bike share,” a UNCW spokesperson said in a statement. “College campuses are the perfect setting to promote alternatives to the private car, and students make up a large majority of the crossings on S. College Road.”

The call for the feasibility study, which was approved unanimously by council this week, would inform NCDOT in their movement forward: “The completion of a feasibility study to evaluate a pedestrian bridge, tunnel, or other potential alternative crossing solutions could lead to enhanced bicycle and pedestrian safety along the busy College Road corridor,” according to the council agenda. 

More than 80,000 crossings can occur in this region of College Road each day, according to traffic data collected in February 2021.  

“At the city level we have rezoned a ton of properties west of the college, all the way over to Kerr Avenue, from residential to multi-family,” Rivenbark said. “I would say probably 80% of those apartment complexes are filled with students.”

The UNCW spokesperson said the university supports the resolution approved by council, and that campus infrastructure has been improved in years past to reduce modal conflicts. 

“It might be 10 years before it gets built,” Rivenbark said. “But it won’t ever get built if we don’t stop somewhere.”

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