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Russ Avenue headed for a makeover

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As part of the Russ Avenue redesign coming down the pike, Waynesville will bear the cost of moving back its power poles and power lines to make way for the wider road footprint, plus installing new street lights.

A $17.5 million redesign of Russ Avenue is still three years away, but once complete, it will dramatically reshape how Haywood County’s busiest commercial thoroughfare functions.

Design plans will be finalized over the next several months, followed by a two-year engineering phase. Construction will begin in 2020 and is predicted to take three years.

While construction will no doubt be a nightmare along the heavily-traveled corridor, much will be done at night to minimize disruption.

“It will be a difficult project. I expect we would build down one side of the road and then build down the other side of the road and then do the median,” said Brian Burch, the acting division engineer over the western most district of the N.C. Department of Transportation. “Because this is a commercial business district, I would expect us to attempt to do a lot of night work. We are going to do our best to allow those businesses to stay open”

The construction portion of the project is estimated to cost $10.5 million, with $7 million estimated for right-of-way property buy outs. Right of way acquisition will begin next year.

Despite a much wider road footprint — due to the addition of a median plus bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides of the road — only three or four buildings will actually have to be torn down due to encroachment, although several business will lose some of their parking.

Road designers kept the widening symmetrical down Russ, rather than shifting it to one side or the other in an attempt to save this or that business.

“If you try to move over to save one business you have ramifications. Saving one on one end may impact another business on the other side downstream,” Burch said.

The biggest change to Russ Avenue will be the elimination of the middle turn lane. A median will run the length of Russ Avenue instead, preventing the back-ups and hazards caused by drivers pulling willy-nilly in and out of businesses across lanes of oncoming traffic.

“We are looking to alleviate traffic congestion and safety concerns,” Burch said. “Most of that concern was due to left-turn movements crossing lanes of traffic.”

There is a sacrifice, however. Drivers wanting to get to the opposite side of the road will have to carry on to a stop light and make a U-turn to double back.

But Burch said he didn’t get much negative feedback on the medians during the last round of public comment a year ago.

“Most people understood that left turns into and out of these businesses were an issue and a concern," he said. "They had accepted that to improve the mobility and improve the access along this corridor, it had to be done."

How Russ Avenue will look when the project is done will hinge partly on the quality of landscaping that gets planted. The landscaping budget for the road is only about $50,000, based on half-a-percent of the total construction cost.

The town has worked diligently to plant street trees along Russ Avenue over the past 15 years, sometimes paying for it themselves and other times requiring street trees as part of new development.

It’s unclear whether the DOT will pay to replace the existing trees it takes down with the widening, or whether the cost would have to come out of the small landscaping budget — which may not be enough to complete the look of a tree-lined boulevard.

“We worked really hard on this stretch to do good landscaping and good sidewalks, so we hope DOT will work with us to preserve what we have created,” said Waynesville Town Planner Elizabeth Teague.

Teague said she appreciated the DOT’s attention to sidewalks, which are included through the entire length of the route. The DOT even extended sidewalks all the way to Kmart, even though the scope of the project otherwise didn’t go quite that far.

“We know this is an area of future growth,” Teague said, referring to Russ Avenue on the other side of the bypass. “So as development occurs we can require developers to help us with the sidewalks but where we couldn’t get help with the sidewalks was under the expressway, so that meets a critical pedestrian connectivity need.”

Russ Avenue is not only a commercial destination for shoppers, but a primary commuter route into Waynesville. Here’s what we know from the latest DOT traffic counts:

• 24,000 vehicular trips a day on the busiest section of Russ — between the U.S. 23-74 bypass and Ingles.

• 16,000 vehicles a day between the Howell Mill intersection and Bi-Lo.

• Traffic falls off to only 5,800 vehicles a day as Russ narrows on its approach to downtown. Some never make it into Waynesville, only venturing to Russ for shopping before heading back out of town. Others fan out onto Dellwood Road, which sees 10,000 vehicles a day, and onto Howell Mill, which sees 4,300 vehicles a day.

• Russ Avenue on the other side of the bypass going toward Kmart sees 19,000 vehicular trips a day.

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