SNOW HILL — Weeks after the most recent fatality at a troubled intersection, Snow Hill residents turned out in force Wednesday night at a public hearing to demand a traffic light at Routes 113 and 12.
With the current state plan calling for the installation of “J-turns” at the intersection instead of a light, dozens of residents promised to do everything from a petition drive to marching down to Annapolis to get a light built instead.
That intersection has a long history of accidents, including fatalities. Since opening in 2006, the spot has seen close to 60 collisions.
“There have been lives lost,” said Snow Hill resident Kevin Douglas.
Douglas asked the State Highway Administration (SHA) representatives at the hearing, including District Engineer Donnie Drewer and Assistant District Engineer for Traffic Ken Cimino, if they were still comfortable installing J-turns at the intersection when so many people clearly demanded a traffic light.
“Can we lay our heads on our pillows at night knowing that the people have spoken and nothing has been done?” he asked. “I could not.”
More than a dozen other residents voiced arguments almost identical to what Douglas maintained. The speakers wanted to know why the SHA refused to install a traffic light, which would be cheaper, more convenient and, at least in their minds, safer that J-turns.
“Why can’t you give it a try?” asked Worcester County Commissioner Madison Bunting. “It’s a lot cheaper; lower the speed limit, give the light a try, collect the data on that and see what happens.”
Drewer reminded Bunting that the SHA did consider installing a traffic light at the spot but the intersection did not meet the requirements in terms of traffic density.
“I can’t put a light there unless it meets warrants,” he said. “If I had a potful of money here, I still couldn’t do it.”
While the intersection did meet the quota needed for accidents in a year to justify a light, Drewer explained that the amount of traffic that traveled through the area was slightly under the minimum needed in either a four- or eight-hour consecutive period to warrant a light.
Drewer also argued that a traffic light isn’t the silver bullet solution that so many residents in Snow Hill believe it to be. He called the light “fool’s gold” and stressed that adding a light to an intersection that didn’t meet the warrants could actually increase accidents, especially rear-end collisions.
But after seeing the design work for the J-turns, the audience at the hearing continued to clearly support a light.
“Looking at it from a novice point of view, and looking at it as being responsible for students and school busses on a daily basis at that intersection, that design scares the hell out of me,” said Board of Education Director of Transportation Steve Price.
Though J-turns have become relatively common traffic calming measures in the last few years, the design isn’t well known. The turn is structured so that anyone wishing to make a left-hand turn onto Route 113 from Route 12 would begin by making a right-hand turn onto the highway, traveling for less than a quarter of a mile, and then using deceleration and acceleration lanes to make a U-turn, either from northbound Route 113 to southbound or vice versa. The actual intersection would not be crossable by standard traffic, but would have a mountable curb that would still allow fast crossings for emergency vehicles.
“We felt this was the best solution,” said Cimino. “It falls in line with what we’ve done.”
But, like Price, many people felt that having to make a right turn, cross four total lanes of traffic and make a U-turn was overly complicated and would still present safety issues. Additionally, there was a major concern for how large tractor trailers or farming vehicles would cross the intersection.
“What are you going to do with the combines?” asked County Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
Shockley argued that the machines are too slow to comfortably navigate the J-turn and too long to wait in the intersection without interrupting traffic. The mountable curb was also considered a major obstacle for the bulky vehicles.
Snow Hill Mayor Charlie Dorman raised similar concerns about the large trucks that regularly move to and from the nearby Tyson plant.
“Tyson is very fragile here,” he said. “They’re talking about leaving.”
Dorman warned the SHA that the added hassle of the J-turns could be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back and convinces the poultry company to close shop, something he promised would devastate Snow Hill.
Drewer acknowledged the fears around the J-turns, but pointed out that they have been installed and shown success in other parts of the state. Along Route 301 in Queen Anne’s and Kent counties, the installation of the turns saw an average reduction in crashes of 81 percent over a three-year period. The J-turn at Routes 301 and 456 even saw a 93-percent reduction of collisions at that intersection.
Again, the crowd remained clearly skeptical. Several pointed out the intersection at Routes 113 and 12 is unique in that it produces high fatalities for the amount of traffic it sees. Others, like Bob Hulburd, a member of the Board of Education and a local insurance agent, noted that the intersection has been inherently flawed from day one.
“What we’re trying to do is make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” he said. “The intersection was not done well. It was not done appropriately when it was done.”
Hulburd referenced how narrow the intersection was made due to conflicts with nearby environmental preservation. He also reminded the SHA that they have been struggling to calm the location from the first week that it opened.
Even if the SHA continues to plan for the installation of J-turns, officials should also consider suggestions endorsed by residents, including lowering the speed limit, and adding warning or stop signs to the intersection, asserted Shockley.
“I don’t want to go to another funeral,” he said. “I don’t want my EMT guys from Girdletree or Snow Hill out there looking at another accident either. But what we have here isn’t working, that we know.”
Shockley added that the SHA needs to make the intersection as safe as possible until a planned overpass can eventually be installed, most likely several years in the future.
Other residents agreed and many, including Dorman, want to receive a waiver from SHA to install a traffic light instead of a J-turn, especially since Drewer admitted that the area almost met the minimum warrant. A petition is expected to be available at the Duck In in Snow Hill for any residents who want to add their support. The audience was also encouraged to contact their state and local representatives to gather their endorsement of a traffic light.
In the meantime, Drewer and Cimino promised to take all of the comments and suggestions they heard back to Annapolis. Cimino said that he would spend extra time reviewing things like a lower speed limit in the area and the possibility of a waiver. He hopes to have some of that information within 60 days.
If the SHA does stick with J-turns, funding has yet to be found and construction isn’t expected any time before late spring or summer at the earliest.