WILMINGTON — If city council signs off on a resolution Tuesday, it would give the greenlight for Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to apply for a $2 million grant to fund the installation of stop lights on South 3rd Street. The grant also requires the city to cover a portion of the price tag.
Even though 3rd Street (US 17 Business) is a state-maintained road, the North Carolina Department of Transportation doesn’t have a designated funding source for the stop lights. However, it endorsed two to be constructed a block apart on 3rd — one at the intersection of Orange, the other at Ann.
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WMPO is proposing to apply for $2,430,000 from the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program-Direct Attributable (STBGP-DA) to cover the project. If awarded, the city will be required to match it by 20%, totaling $486,080.
The City of Wilmington will manage the stop light installation “to ensure consistency with projects currently being completed,” city manager Tony Caudle wrote in a letter, included in the agenda packet for Tuesday’s council meeting. A block south of Orange, a median recently was constructed at the Dock Street intersection of 3rd to restrict turns and prevent vehicles from crossing amid heavy traffic.
Increased vehicular congestion along US 17 Business has concerned nearby residents over the last few years. Data from the City of Wilmington specified over 15,400 vehicles travel the half-mile stretch daily. NCDOT’s regional traffic safety division and representatives from the city traffic engineering department met with locals last fall and in early winter. Many expressed worries over motorists speeding through the historic district, the tight configuration of lanes in combination with onstreet parking, as well as pedestrian dangers.
While North 3rd Street, primarily peppered with businesses, has stop lights at every cross section from Market to Red Cross, the only stop lights on South 3rd — an historic residential district — are located at Market and again at Castle streets.
NCDOT analyzed all of the intersecting streets between the two points, including Dock, Orange, Ann, Nun and Church. The state transportation agency conducted a traffic analysis of vehicles and pedestrians, existing site conditions and crash history.
Police reports show over 50 accidents — averaging one a week — took place on South 3rd from Market to Castle streets between January and December 2021. They ranged from side-swipes to rear-endings, damage to parked vehicles and pedestrian and cyclist-involved incidents.
The NCDOT distinguished it only accounts for reports made by law enforcement but more go undocumented.
Council asked city staff to present a resident petition to consider providing the funding match to install the two traffic signals. Staff turned over more than 650 signatures.
One petitioner wrote: “The crosswalk at Third and Ann is quite dangerous because drivers do not stop for the flashing yellow lights. We need a stoplight there. I’ve witnessed a city bus not stopping, as well as a police car.”
Part of the city’s River to Sea Bikeway, the Ann Street crosswalk is often used by school-aged children, the elderly and visitors, staff noted in its findings. It conveniently connects from the area’s historic neighborhoods to downtown businesses, offices, schools, restaurants, museums, tourist attractions and other amenities.
In 2010, the crossing was boasted as part of the city’s first bike boulevard, intended to give cyclists priority over motorists to cross safely. It was implemented with flashing caution lights, costing $20,000 each. Pedestrians and cyclists press the button to activate the lights, in turn alerting motorists to allow for passersby to navigate 3rd Street.
Yet, staff found drivers are often “confused” by it and rarely stop. It concludes the crosswalk has proven ineffective.
“The fact that the pedestrian activated yellow light may be making the situation worse has been generally accepted by every City and State official that we have discussed this issue,” staff described. “Just since last October, two people have been hit in the crosswalk while the yellow lights were flashing. One was a child, a student at nearby St Mary’s, who was struck by a car and flew into the car’s windshield.”
Many petitioners requested the speed limit also be reduced along 3rd Street; currently, it’s 35 miles per hour. City of Wilmington found the average speed traveled is 35.4, yet the 85th percentile tops out at 40.1 miles per hour. It also indicates that daily more than 2,100 cars travel 45 miles per hour on the street.
Yet, NCDOT determined speed reduction will not be pursued at this time. Instead, it is making sure appropriate signage is posted in visible locations. It also suggested the city install speed radar signs to collect more data and inform local law enforcement to watch the areas more closely.
Approving the stop lights, it noted, would be a good first step to mitigate issues. Specifically, putting one at Orange Street, it explained, would help drivers safely turn onto 3rd. Views of oncoming traffic are often obstructed by cars parked streetside. With 3rd Street flanked by residences, property damage has been reported due to traffic incidents as well.
NCDOT projected the two stop lights would cost $1.4 million, but city staff estimates funding could be approximately $1 million more. They based pricing on recent bids that have been culled for similar projects, showing needs are “substantially higher than NCDOT’s estimate.” The staff also took into consideration “additional work that could reasonably be expected during construction, as well as other grant-related project costs.”
Though not part of the city’s adopted five-year capital improvement plan, staff has recommended adding it as a priority for fiscal year 2023-2024, should the STBGP-DA grant money be allocated.
“The City is the only immediate funding source,” documents indicated.
WMPO has a Sept. 15 deadline to apply for the $2.4 million grant. Council will vote at Tuesday’s Aug. 2 meeting whether it will sign a resolution for the agency to move forward, therein also agreeing to the city’s $480,000 match.
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