February 23, 2003

West Elk Avenue: An accident waiting to happen

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR Staff

   West Elk Avenue is a favorite thoroughfare for motorists entering and leaving Elizabethton. Any given day of the week 34,000 vehicles travel its well-worn asphalt. And about once a week at least, some of those vehicles come to a screeching halt, waiting for police and emergency workers to clear an accident scene -- usually at one of the many intersections which front the highway.
   "It's hazardous really," said David Ornduff, director of Planning and Development for the City of Elizabethton. "Park over in the Pizza Inn parking lot sometime around 8 o'clock in the morning or 5 o'clock in the afternoon and just watch the traffic. I think you'll get a pretty good feel of why the planning commission did not permit new curb cuts."
   On Feb. 4, the Elizabethton Planning Commission approved two site plans, each allowing only one access point to West Elk Avenue from new developments proposed for the North American Corp. property.
   Walgreens drug store had submitted a site plan calling for a 14,800-square-foot building to be built on 2.1 acres of the North American property near the West Elk/Hudson Drive intersection. Walgreens' plan called for two curb cuts to allow customers access to the business.
   The planning commission approved an alternative plan allowing access through the existing North American entrance to West Elk, and also limited Wal-Mart to one access point to the North American site, where it plans to develop a supercenter on 22.69 acres.
   "What the planning commission had proposed was that no curb cut be permitted on West Elk Avenue and that the existing traffic signal at Hudson Drive and the entrance to Wal-Mart would be upgraded to take care of the additional turn lanes for ingress/egress to the Wal-Mart site," Ornduff said.
   Other access to Wal-Mart could be provided through Wallace Avenue on the east side, which would eventually tie in to the original Wal-Mart site, according to Ornduff. "Although that wasn't part of the site plan approved by the planning commission, it has been proposed in times past and I understand that it may materialize sometime in the near future, perhaps by the time the Wal-Mart project is completed," he said.
   Ornduff agreed that there already are too many curb cuts on West Elk but said there are a lot of reasons the planning commission denied the request for more. "The planning commission heard from the police chief, the fire chief, and the Emergency & Rescue Squad director. All of them objected to additional curb cuts on Elk Avenue because of the safety issues involved for emergency responders that go through there on a daily basis," he said.
   "Some of the other reasons were that in the planning commission's long-range plan for the comprehensive plan for the city that was developed in 1984, and the Major Thoroughfare Plan in 1987, provided for a marginal access road to be constructed from the North American property to Sycamore Shoals State Park. So, having adopted that program and having it in place, the planning commission wanted to follow the plans that were already adopted for development of that property should it ever occur. Now that it has occurred, that is being required to be put in place," Ornduff said.
   Not to be ruled out is a possible access link to the North American property once the Northern Connector is completed. The state will be going through right-of-way acquisitions this summer, with construction expected to begin in fall/winter of 2004, Ornduff said.
   "The city did propose a bridge be constructed from the Northern Connector over to Cherokee Industrial Park maybe five or six years ago, and that's still a possibility when the Northern Connector is completed," he said.
   When merely seconds may be all that's standing between the life and death of an accident victim, negotiating traffic on West Elk Avenue can be nightmarish for rescue workers. Drivers of these emergency vehicles must negotiate their way to area hospitals through a maze of vehicles driven by motorists who either can't get out of the way because they are hemmed in on both sides, or who are oblivious to the sirens and flashing lights, or who otherwise fail to yield.
   Terry Arnold, EMS director with Carter County Emergency & Rescue Squad, said he is opposed to another cutout on West Elk Avenue due to safety concerns and because it would slow emergency workers even more.
   "It's bad the way it is through there now. Another one isn't going to help," Arnold said. "More cutouts, more wrecks."
   "We run over 11,000 calls per year and it's always to Sycamore Shoals or the Medical Center. I'm concerned about it slowing us down," he said.
   David Nichols of the Rescue Squad said that if you sit and watch people leaving Wal-Mart, you'll find that not all of them exit at the intersection with the traffic signal. "Some of them go up behind Long John Silvers and go out Industrial Drive and then come out Mill Street; some of them go on into the service station to buy gas; some of them go into Burger King. There are all kinds of entrances. I believe it will make it worse if they move [super Wal-Mart] down there and make another entrance onto Elk Avenue."
   Nichols said the degree of difficulty encountered on West Elk depends a lot on the time of day. "Going down Elk Avenue -- and anybody knows it -- from roughly 3 in the afternoon till 5 in the afternoon is awful. If you've got Wal-Mart full and the high school is turning loose, there's a problem at the current intersection. If they make another intersection on Elk Avenue, they can't do nothing but make it worse."
   He estimated that rescue personnel make about 20 trips a day down West Elk with a patient onboard, and "that's not counting responding to calls."
   Special Opticom lights now installed at the Wal-Mart intersection allow city firemen to change the way the red lights are controlled so they can pass through and speed their response time to calls. "We don't have those on our ambulances," Nichols said, though installation is an option. "But now, you talk about aggravating people to death ... It would help us get through there quicker, but as many trips as we make through there a day, it would be awful,"
   Elizabethton Fire Chief Mike Shouse said the Opticom traffic signal system, which is activated from inside the fire trucks, takes control of the intersection. "It will turn all of the other directions red, except for the way we're going. It turns it green. It's not just going to throw an automatic red up there to you; it has to go back through a cycle real quick. The one at Wal-Mart, we can usually start triggering it by the time we hit Long John Silvers, and that gives it enough time to go through its cycle to stop the traffic and let you proceed on green."
   The Opticom system has been installed at numerous intersections throughout the city and resembles a round black box with two clear lights on each side, hanging down from the four-way traffic signal.
   Shouse said one of the dangers motorists encounter is exiting the post office entrance at Wallace Avenue at 2 or 3 o'clock in the afternoon. "Try to pull out of there and turn back lefthanded coming toward town, you're taking your life in your own hands.
   "If I'm going into Sonic, I'm scared to death to put my signal light on till I get right on top of their driveway. Because if I turn it on, then the guy coming out of Taco Bell says, 'Oh, well, he's going to turn into here and I can go on ...'
   "By putting in another intersection right there that's not traffic light-controlled, you're just throwing in more problems, more danger. And when you're trying to proceed down through there in these big ole fire trucks, it gets a little hairy from time to time. You're talking about a fire truck that's 16 to 18 tons. You just don't bow those up and stop like you do a Porsche."
   Shouse said he also believes there can be some kind of resolution to remedy the problem. "I'm no designer; don't claim to be, don't want to be. But it makes more sense to me, if I'm driving a vehicle, I want to come out at a traffic light. I don't want to have to come out in the middle of the traffic -- a four-lane highway especially. We had a bad wreck there yesterday [Thursday], even at a traffic light.
   "Today's Friday; it's raining. So, we all know what we can look forward to down there today. And by adding another uncontrolled intersection like that, I just think there should be some other way.
   "If you have to spend a million dollars to fix something to save one life, to me, that's worth it. I'm not going to be the one to put a price tag on somebody's life," Shouse said.
   At the Feb. 4 planning commission meeting, Elizabethton Police Chief Roger Deal recommended that the curb cuts proposed by Walgreens be moved farther down. "Two light poles down is just not far enough" for traffic safety, Deal said.
   Assistant Police Chief Larry Shell said he believes the impact of traffic flowing to a super Wal-Mart will be the same as what police officers deal with now. "We just hope how soon the new bypass will be a reality. From the hospital all the way to Broad Street and downtown, it's just tremendous traffic flow."
   Carter County Sheriff John Henson said he has always been for better business and more jobs for Carter County, "but a super Wal-Mart probably is going to increase traffic and make it harder getting to where you're going. It's going to most definitely, I would say, give us more work on traffic."