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NC saved $1M building a rest area in the middle of I-77. But is it safe for drivers?

N.C. Department of Transportation

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For decades, weary travelers going north or south on Interstate 77 could pull into grassy rest areas near Mooresville. Now the roadside areas are gone, replaced by a single rest area built in the highway’s median north of Statesville.

Why were the existing rest areas demolished? Reader Jim Ramandanes of Charlotte wanted to know, so he asked CuriousNC, a project of the Charlotte Observer, the News & Observer and Durham’s Herald-Sun.

Ramandanes was also interested in the safety of the new design, which makes drivers exit and reenter I-77 from its passing lanes where traffic moves fastest. So, it turns out, was a college civil engineering professor who calls the design an accident waiting to happen.

North Carolina’s Department of Transportation answered the first question when the new rest area opened in February near Exit 59 in Iredell County. It is North Carolina’s first rest area to be built in a median and serve both directions of travel, but such designs are used in other states.

Building the $15 million facility in the median didn’t require the state to buy additional right-of-way, saving $1 million. The rest area has six restrooms, a vending/seating area and 55 parking spaces for trucks. With its opening, the two rest areas near Mooresville and two more at the Iredell/Yadkin County line were closed.

The closures were part of a years-long trend among states that want to save money operating or renovating areas, USA Today reported. North Carolina operates 38 rest areas or welcome centers on interstate highways.

The closed I-77 rest areas dated to the early 1970s and didn’t meet federal standards for accommodating people with disabilities, said Jimmy Parrish, DOT’s rest area section supervisor. They were also closer together than the one-hour driving distance that’s considered appropriate, he said.

Closing them will save the state about $275,000 a year in maintenance costs, Parrish said.

But William Carter, a civil engineer who taught at the University of Florida, thinks there’s more to the issue than cost. Plunking a rest area in the middle of a highway with a 70 mph speed limit is unsafe, he contends.

“I would have failed a student with that design,” he said. “To me, it’s a death trap.”

Carter, who recently retired from the University of Houston, first saw the new I-77 rest area in May while driving from Florida to a summer home in West Virginia and on the return trip in September.

His critique: The design forces drivers headed to the rest area to exit I-77 from its passing lane. Even more dangerously, Carter says, the lane leading from the rest area back to the highway is too short for cars to fully accelerate and has no warning lights to alert oncoming vehicles that they’re coming.

Two rest areas sit in the Interstate 85 median at the N.C. Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Davidson County. But unlike the I-77 facility, DOT built bridges that let drivers enter and exit those rest areas from the interstate’s slower, right lanes.

On I-77, Carter said he watched an apparently panicked elderly couple exit the new rest area into the path of a truck that “almost ran over them.” He said he wrote Gov. Roy Cooper’s office about his concerns and got a courtesy reply, but hasn’t heard back from the Department of Transportation.

“I’m going to guarantee the governor and I’ll guarantee DOT that one day you’ll have an accident there,” he said.

In fact, two accidents have been reported as vehicles tried to enter or exit the new rest area, DOT records show.

The accidents left one person injured and vehicle damages totaling more than $34,000.

One accident occurred early on a March morning when a northbound tractor-trailer tried to move right to allow traffic from the rest area to merge and sideswiped a car in the far lane, the State Highway Patrol reported.

The other collision happened in July as a Florida driver, after missing the entrance to the rest area, tried to make a U-turn to enter it by going the wrong way on the exit lane and hit a second vehicle, a report said.

Parrish said DOT had to alter its design for the rest area in order to get Federal Highway Administration approval for it to be built. Both its entry and exit lanes were lengthened, making them longer than lanes at roadside rest areas.

“It gives people more time to slow down and to speed back up,” Parrish said. “That was the main thing the FHA said we had to do. We would never have built it without those things.”

The highway administration didn’t recommend that warning lights for merging traffic be installed, as Carter suggested, but Parrish said DOT put up signs warning motorists that they would have to exit left to enter the rest area. Parrish said he’s not aware of any motorist complaints about the design.

AAA Carolinas said rest areas are important recharging stations for motorists.

“As with any new design, it will take motorists some time to get used to entering and exiting the (new) rest stop,” spokeswoman Tiffany Wright said by email. “AAA will definitely be monitoring the new facility to see if its design has become a safety issue.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender

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