Oak Ridge is tied up in traffic

 In September 2019, Town Square

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Oak Ridge Military Academy was opened in 1852 by the Society of Friends as a finishing school for boys. NASCAR veteran Dale Earnhardt Jr. attended the school in 1988.

By Chris Burritt

Tabitha Combs remembers when horses and cows grazed in fields around Oak Ridge’s main intersection. The tree-lined Oak Ridge Military Academy, where young minds have been molded since the 1850s, anchored one of the four corners.

Thirty years later after Combs left her hometown, one of the oldest private military schools in America is still there. Otherwise, suburban development — a shopping center, fast-food restaurants, a drugstore, two banks and the town’s ABC store — have created a busy, often congested intersection where two country roads once crossed in northwestern Guilford County.

In the parlance of what used to be horse country, town leaders have pulled back on the reins of development. Those efforts have intensified over the last year and a half, with a focus on creating a “village feel’’ for a commercial district that lacks a true core.

Combs, who is now a research associate at UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of City and Regional Planning, recently advised town officials about proposed highway improvements. She, town leaders and N.C. Department of Transportation planners are navigating around a big roadblock.

N.C. 68 runs through Oak Ridge, cutting the commercial district in half. Imagine on a far smaller scale, Interstate 85 bisecting downtown Charlotte, or the state Capitol and the legislative building divided by I-40 in Raleigh. The highway’s intersection with N.C. 150 handles more than 30,000 vehicles a day, ranging from people commuting to and from work and tractor-trailer trucks grinding through the Triad.

“We’re stuck with 68,’’ says Jim Kinneman, Oak Ridge’s mayor pro tem. “So we have to make the best of it.’’

Traffic converges in Oak Ridge because of its increasing appeal as a rural refuge and its proximity to Greensboro to the southeast and Winston-Salem to the west. With few jobs or major employers in Oak Ridge, many residents travel the two highways to and from work in those two cities.

Oak RidgeChris Burritt

A public hearing in March intensified debate in Oak Ridge about whether traffic circles would improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists. From left, traffic consultant Andy Young and NCDOT engineer Brian Ketner discuss proposed changes with resident Mike Kimel.

N.C. 68 is a north-south route that carries lots of truck traffic between southwest Virginia and the Piedmont Triad. It shrinks to two lanes from four through Oak Ridge as it travels from Davidson County to northwest Guilford County.

Running east to west, N.C. 150 passes through Oak Ridge as two lanes known as the Danville-Salisbury Stagecoach Road in the colonial era. The opening of Interstate 73 in northwestern Guilford County last year has diverted some traffic, but the impact appears limited.

The community still bears markers of a simpler time. The grist mill that opened in 1767 still operates as the Old Mill of Guilford. About 50 years later, local Quakers started a school that evolved into what’s now Oak Ridge Military Academy in the 1850s. For more than 150 years since then, Oak Ridge remained a rural crossroads — until residential development turned it into a bedroom community of the Triad’s two big cities.

Incorporated in 1998, Oak Ridge has added 200 to 250 residents annually in recent years, reaching an estimated population of 6,917 in 2017. It would have been more except for rules that require residential lots of roughly one acre, at a minimum. But the area attracts families because of the quality of its education, large building lots and its rural character.

Housing in Oak Ridge is pricier than in most of the Triad, partly because of the lot-size requirement. The average sales price of a house in Oak Ridge topped $426,000 in mid-August, according to real estate site Trulia. Zillow listed three Oak Ridge properties topping $2 million, including a five-bedroom, six-bath house listed for $3.2 million. The 8,776-square-foot site has been on the market for nearly a year.

Still, town leaders understand the value of creating a sense of place and embracing historic preservation. The Oak Ridge Historic District encompasses more than 400 acres with 37 buildings including the military academy campus, which is listed as a National Historic Landmark District by the National Park Service.

“In a perfect world, you’d create a village feel with a road through downtown where people would travel 25 miles per hour,’’ Kinneman says. “With 68, that’s not possible.”

The best the town may be able to do, he says, is work with state highway planners to alleviate traffic congestion. Also, at the town council’s urging, NCDOT lowered the speed limit from 45 mph to 35 mph along a nearly mile-long stretch of N.C. 68 through Oak Ridge’s commercial district. That should improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists who, according to resident Peter Pozzo, “take [their] life into [their] own hands’’ because of the heavy traffic.

Other residents doubt that the speed change has had much effect. Oak Ridge doesn’t have its own police department, relying instead on the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office and the North Carolina State Highway Patrol to nab speeders. Last month, readers of the local Northwest Observer weekly newspaper posted a range of recommendations to slow traffic, including installing flashing lights on top of speed limit signs and adding rumble strips in the pavement. One post suggested a “bunch of fake deer on the side of the road’’ might slow down speeders.

A more important measure may be roughly $6.2 million in road improvements by NCDOT, along with the town’s plan to invest $400,000 for landscaping and new sidewalks to encourage more walking.

The NCDOT project involves building roundabouts at two smaller intersections and adding new traffic signals and pedestrian crosswalks at the main N.C. 68-N.C. 150 crossing. That approach followed lengthy community discussions that sparked both strong support and opposition for roundabouts, which are becoming much more prevalent as North Carolina’s population surges. Critics said people unaccustomed to navigating traffic circles would cause accidents, while Mayor Spencer Sullivan and supporters credit roundabouts with slowing traffic and improving safety.

“The roundabouts are going to create the potential to calm traffic as it comes into the town’s core,’’ Combs says. NCDOT “is trying to respect the town’s desire to be bikeable and walkable.’’

All five council members endorsed the idea of a traffic circle for Oak Ridge’s main intersection. But they stood down when NCDOT said such a plan would immediately overwhelm the roundabout, potentially creating mile-long bottlenecks.

Instead, the state will start buying right of way for the smaller circles next year with construction to start in 2021. For now, town leaders urge drivers to slow down, enjoy what’s remaining of Oak Ridge’s rural appeal and show patience as the community slowly creates a more enduring core.

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