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Monday, May 27, 2024

WMPO study shows Cape Fear traffic overall ‘improved,’ bottlenecks remain throughout main arteries

Rush hour traffic in Hampstead on Wednesday evening. (Port City Daily photo / Mark Darrough)
Rush hour traffic on U.S. 17 in Hampstead is still considered one of the worst routes for commuters, per a recent study by the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. (Port City Daily photo / file)

WILMINGTON — During morning commutes in Wilmington, drivers can expect to sit in traffic up to 2 minutes to drive 1 mile on College Road, according to new data from the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

WMPO has developed an interactive congestion dashboard, which identifies the most trafficky roadways along 30 corridors, totaling more than 100 miles in the greater Wilmington area. It will allow the transportation agency to properly plan how to mitigate impacts in the future.

READ MORE: Independence Blvd extension increases by $55M, NCDOT pushes construction to 2028

The public can access the dashboard for drivers to gauge how likely they are to be sitting in traffic on certain roads during three peak hours in the morning and one in the afternoon. Residents can also see which roads have improved or have worsened.

The WMPO is federally required to develop a congestion management process every two years, the first being in 2014. It includes proposed strategies for combating traffic backups and increasing safety. It is also used to inform projects and policies, including in its 2050 Metropolitan Transportation Plan.

The long-range proposal helps dictate funding and priority projects in the region, which are also submitted to N.C. Department of Transportation’s 10-year Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.

A congestion management plan also helps to provide feedback on needed upgrades that were previously completed and how they’ve benefited traffic.

To mitigate traffic concerns noted in the plan, the WMPO uses various strategies from implementation of carpools and employer shuttles to roadway improvements like widening and grade separation, deputy director Abby Lorzeno explained. Some implemented tactics, according to the 2020 biennial report, include shifting drivers to a different mode of transportation, improving signal timing, varying speed limits and intersection improvements.

To assist with tracking road congestion, WMPO recruited consultant Kittelson and Associates out of Portland, Oregon, to analyze 30 select corridors in town, including Market Street, College Road, Front Street, Third Street, Kerr Avenue, MLK Parkway, Randall Parkway, Eastwood Road, Carolina Beach Road and Gordon Road. 

“As we use this data to develop our biennial report over the next few months, we will have a better idea of how the corridors have changed since the last report,” Lorenzo said.

For example in 2020, Market Street from Third Street to College, 4.42 miles, was identified as having six trouble areas: 16th Street, 17th Street, Kerr Avenue, Wilmington Avenue, Lullwater Drive and New Centre Drive. WMPO prioritized signal upgrades and road improvements in an attempt to correct proven problems.

A more thorough analysis on why certain roads are considered less reliable now than in 2019 will be identified as the WMPO compiles its full congestion management report later this year.

Kittelson said less vehicles were on the road during Covid and there are more “spread out” commute times, for example, compared to the 2020 report.

In previous years, a staff member would conduct and report research by manually driving routes five or six times during peak travel hours in a single day to clock the trip. 

This created a “snapshot” of the conditions, Lorenzo explained; however, it was time-consuming and was more taxing to evaluate average travel times and average delays.

For the most recent research, Kittelson utilized the National Performance Management Research Data Set (NPMRDS) — a federally recognized system — to calculate metrics from September to November 2021 (excluding holidays). As Wilmington is a seasonal town, it chose to collect data from off-season months for a more accurate description of day-to-day travel.

The current data has been compared to the same months of previous years (2019 and 2017) and shows most peak-hour travel times have improved, such as Carolina Beach Road, Kerr Avenue, Castle Hayne Road and Independence Boulevard.

Other roads, including the morning commute along Front Street from Lakeshore Drive to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, the afternoon drive along College Road from Wilshire to Pinecliff, and both times of day along U.S. 17 in Hampstead have worsened.

Kittelson analyzed each route in terms of reliability, meaning how travel times fluctuate from day to day. In the morning, the key routes that prove to be “unreliable,” equaling inconsistent traffic issues throughout the week, are Gordon Road, U.S. 17 in Porter’s Neck, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and Front Street.

Drivers in the northern part of the county, specifically near Market Street and Gordon Road, can expect it will take 1.5 minutes to travel 1 mile in the morning. A typical mile would take drivers 1 minute, driving at 60 mph. 

In the afternoon, both College and Gordon roads still present issues taking 2 minutes to travel per mile. On Oleander and Independence, it will take about 1.5 minutes to drive 1 mile during the evening commute. These are identified as some of the least reliable travel routes.

“There’s been growth in these areas, so it’s pretty reasonable to think that those may have worse travel times now as they did in the past,” Kittelson senior engineer Zachary Bugg explained to WMPO’s technical coordinating committee during a Zoom presentation July 13. 

In the afternoon, there are higher levels of volume, and unreliable roadways, meaning inconsistent traffic, including College, Gordon, Market, Oleander and Front. 

Bugg noted reliability overall has actually improved since 2019. He will present the information at Wednesday’s 3 p.m. WMPO board meeting.

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