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Street Smarts

by Karen Martin

October 4,2005

"Crack," sighs my co-pilot, rolling his eyes and sagging into the passenger's seat.

"Excuse me?" I reply, distracted. I'm concentrating on the stop and go traffic in front of me, wondering why the woman in the blue Honda couldn't move forward just a little bit. Does she not know that people are waiting to make the turn?

"Crack," he says again. "The guy who designed this was definitely on crack."

I chuckle. "You might have a point."

The "this" we're referencing is a particularly irritating component of I-277, which itself is an unhealthy collection of world's shortest on-ramps, pop-up exit signs ("Wait - was that South Boulevard??"), and NASCAR-worthy merge lanes.

But this…this is the most bizarre of all. We're stuck in a string of cars lining the off-ramp from southbound I-277 to Third/Fourth Street. You're familiar with it: the off-ramp that brings you to a halt at a stoplight on Fourth Street in front of a parking deck. The turn is one-way only-to the left-which is fine if you're headed into the center city.

If you need to drive in the opposite direction, however-to check into one of the state's premier hospital facilities, perhaps-you must remain in the left lane to make a hairpin turn that wouldn't be considered at Watkins Glen. Essentially, you're forced to do an about-face to Third Street. The easiest way to do so is to swing slightly to the right before the turn, then over-correct back to the left. If you're behind a blue Honda that won't move forward even a little bit, you're sunk.

It's worse at peak driving times: the backup starts at the traffic signal on Third Street (located somewhere behind your left shoulder as you're sitting at the Fourth Street stoplight), which means that the cars that have successfully navigated the hairpin can go no farther. There always seems to be one car that's stuck, until the Third Street signal changes, sideways across the top of the hairpin. The driver inevitably strives (not always successfully) for a three-point turn.

When I'm giving directions to out-of-towners, I try to suggest an alternate route that might be farther, but in the long run surely is less frustrating.

Otherwise I end up with voice-mail messages like this: "Karen, it's your mother. We missed that turn you talked about. We're in Matthews. Call us back."

Turns out, they didn't stay in the left lane in order to get to Third Street, but turned left from the right lane, landing on Fourth Street. Hoping to find another route out of town, they turned right onto McDowell Street, and then another right onto what they thought (naturally) would be Fifth Street - but instead was the on-ramp to Independence Boulevard. And this happened before the traffic pattern was jumbled around the new Bobcats Arena.

Still, that was better than the call I received at 1:30 a.m. a few months later from a friend: “We were pulled over by the police. We made a wrong turn at that crazy intersection-and we ended up driving the wrong way on a one-way street." Yes, they were sober; just really tired.

It's obvious that some area roadways are aging and in need of refurbishing. (Kudos to the crews who re-paved parts of I-277 beautifully, with a minimum of disruption!) As we consider the city's continued growth and the accompanying traffic, I hope that planners consider redesigning and rebuilding our roads even better than before.

Here's a partial wish list:

• Longer on- and off-ramps for less frenetic merging.
• Well-marked and -navigable interchanges.
• Brightly painted lane lines.
• More frequent quality control-- replacing damaged guardrails, and
removing debris on the shoulders.
• Frequent trimming of weeds that hide signage.

With the debut of the Bobcats' new arena, we'll welcome thousands of visitors from outside Charlotte. The dawning of ImaginOn and a remodeled Discovery Place will attract thousands more. A pleasant driving experience would encourage them to return.

Feel free to create your own list. You'll have plenty of time to think about it while you're waiting at a traffic signal near your favorite off-ramp hairpin turn.

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