City blesses highway plan

By Bob Buckel | Published Wednesday, October 10, 2012

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“You have seven head-nods. Go ye forth and do it.”

Mayor Martin Woodruff voiced the Decatur City Council’s assent Monday night to three proposed projects designed to ease traffic congestion on the city’s state highway arteries.

Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Area Engineer Bill Nelson came to seek the council’s blessing on three proposed projects:

  • widening Business 380 west of U.S. 287 to create an additional lane so two lanes can go straight or turn left under the underpass;
  • creating an additional left-turn lane from the U.S. 287 access road onto Farm Road 51 South; and
  • installing a concrete center lane along FM 51 South between U.S. 287 and Ford Street to provide for dedicated left turns for northbound traffic, and prevent southbound traffic from turning left in that area.

Nelson said the projects have been under consideration for years, but funding has now become available to build them. With businesses continuing to spring up along FM 51 South, the traffic situation has worsened considerably since the city council first asked TxDOT to look into it in 2005.

The only potentially negative impact would be on businesses along FM 51 just south of 287, as drivers will no longer be able to go in both directions to turn into and out of their parking lots.

“We sent out a letter to the property owners in the area,” Nelson said. “We got four responses, and we met with those four. They are concerned about the impact on their businesses.”

When the median is installed, drivers heading south on FM 51 would not be able to turn left into Exxon/Burger King, Sonic or Auto Zone. The first place to turn left would be on West Ford Street, which basically empties into the parking lot of Beall’s, Hibbett Sports and Sherwin-Williams.

Drivers going north on FM 51 would of course be able to turn right into any of those businesses, and they would have a dedicated left-turn lane at one point to cross over to Good Morning Donuts, Circle S, Wendy’s and the host of other businesses in the strip shopping center behind them – including Market Place, Tractor Supply and Walmart.

But when they leave, they will have to turn right onto FM 51 and head south. If they want to go north, their only option would be to go south until they can turn around, or filter back through the Walmart parking lot and exit onto the 287 eastbound access road.

It was the concensus of the council that those inconveniences are minor compared to the danger of having vehicles turning left across oncoming traffic to get into and out of those parking lots. Nelson agreed.

“It’s my office’s opinion that the improvements to safety will outweigh whatever impact it will have,” he said.

Councilmember Cary Bohn pointed out that “people are avoiding that part of town because of congestion.”

The $282,000 project should be bid next April, Nelson said.

“We expect that it will be done next summer,” he added. “This will go pretty quick. The traffic signals won’t require any modification. The 380 widening will be the most time-consuming project, but it should still be done next summer.”

The other two projects, adding turn lanes at the ramp off 287 onto 51 and widening Business 380 as it goes under 287, will only expand traffic capacity, not restrict it.

‘What we’re trying to do is build in storage, and allow more vehicles to get through the intersection in one cycle,” Nelson said.

Nelson promised to look into a suggestion from Decatur Police Chief Rex Hoskins for a continuous right-turn lane from Hale Street northbound onto the 287 access road. He said that would help ease congestion on the access road coming off 287, where traffic often backs up all the way to Allsup’s during rush hours.

Mayor Woodruff said the changes, although they will take some getting used to, should solve some problems.

“There are some real safety issues with traffic on 51 South,” he said. “I know we’ll see some inconvenience with right turns only, but left turns across heavy traffic are dangerous.”

No business owners or other citizens showed up at the meeting to talk about the proposal, but employees at those businesses were quick to react Tuesday when shown the map of the changes.

“It will impact our business to an extent,” said Steven Hitchcock, parts sales manager at Auto Zone. “There are a lot of wrecks out here. It’s a Catch-22 – you can’t please everybody. It will help the accident situation, but it’s going to be a pain for customers trying to get in here.”

Sonic manager Shawn Guffee said, “our owner and everybody thinks its definitely going to affect our business.”

An employee at Exxon/Burger King, who did not wish to be identified, said the changes would make it harder for people to find their way in. The store’s manager was out of town and unavailable for comment.

The council on Monday night also approved on second reading an ordinance requiring fuel retailers to require payment in advance. The measure was requested by the police department in an effort to reduce gas “drive-offs” which are minor crimes but expensive to pursue.

Mayor Woodruff also distributed a form for council members to use in their annual evaluation of City Manager Brett Shannon.

CHANGES ON BUSINESS 380 – An additional lane will allow traffic to turn left and go north on 287.

TURNING RESTRICTED – Drivers southbound on FM 51 will have to wait until Ford Street to turn left.

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