Jim Cooke, a Cornelius resident and science teacher at Pine Lake Preparatory School, has submitted road designs that are being considered by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
The 31-year-old North Mecklenburg native attended UNC Chapel Hill, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and geography and a master’s in teaching science, grades 9-12.
Cooke worked on his road designs last year from October to December before submitting them to the town of Cornelius.
“Shortly after the eastbound lanes on the Exit 28 bridge completely opened, I was sitting in traffic and noticed that the U.S. 21/Catawba Avenue intersection was very flawed and was the weakest link in the traffic system,” Cooke said.
He later had an eureka moment and got to work on his designs. When he showed them to Tyler Beardsley, a project manager with Cornelius, Beardsley asked Cooke for ideas to improve the Torrence Chapel Road intersection.
“I went home and stared at Google Maps for a while, and eventually I had an eureka moment about that intersection as well,” Cooke said. “I spoke to Commissioner Woody Washam, and he encouraged me to get that idea down in writing, too.”
Cooke later forwarded his ideas to elected officials, who forwarded them to the DOT.
“I got a very nice email back from Jim Dunlop of the NCDOT,” Cooke said. “He was extremely impressed and appreciative of my ideas. I spoke to him on the phone as well, and I felt very encouraged that NCDOT is seriously considering my ideas.”
All along, Cooke has felt confident that his designs would be taken seriously, and he wants them to be examined by the public. He formally presented his ideas at a board meeting last month.
“I came up with a great idea that would help our town, and I put it on paper and put it out there to the best of my ability,” he said. “(People) can make a difference in their communities. If you have a great idea, don’t sit on it. Speak up.”
Dunlop, the congestion management engineer for the Transportation Mobility and Safety Division of the DOT who considers himself an out-of-the-box thinker, recently visited Cornelius to discuss Catawba Avenue.
“I embraced the concepts quickly,” Dunlop said of Cooke’s designs. “I offered that if he wanted to make a career change, give me a call and we’ll see about finding a position for him.
“Mr. Cooke’s ideas fit with some of the concepts we’ve been looking at for improving the Catawba Avenue corridor near the interchange,” Dunlop said. “They are outside the box the same way as the Diverging Diamond Interchange differs from the usual designs.”
A study soon will start to see what improvements could be made West Catawba Avenue between Interstate 77 and Jetton Road, Dunlop said. Officials are looking for a design that would work in conjunction with the diverging diamond interchange and the future widening project on West Catawba Avenue south of Jetton Road to N.C. 73.
It’s not uncommon for residents to submit ideas, Dunlop said. The DOT often thinks of ideas similar to those submitted by the public. Some ideas are too costly, and quite a few make a project better.
“We’ve been looking at improvements to the Catawba/US 21 intersection just east of the interchange, and Mr. Cooke’s idea there has merit, and we’ll take a look to see if it provides better operations,” Dunlop said. “This is an example of the way we take into account the public’s input about our projects.”