by Jordan Green
Winston-Salem residents overwhelmingly support retention of Cherry/Marshall as the city’s primary north-south axis in the planned renovation of the downtown expressway, which is scheduled to begin in early 2016.
As the state Transportation Department prepares for the two-year closure of a section of Business 40 through downtown Winston-Salem beginning in early 2016, residents and institutional leaders are embracing a vision of the city’s future with Cherry and Marshall streets as the main north-south axis.
The expressway, which was built in the mid-20th Century, is out of compliance with current Federal Highway Administration Design Standards, which require one-mile spacing between interchanges. The space between the three interchanges through downtown is respectively 0.28 miles and 0.13 miles, resulting in merging distances as short as 150 feet, compared to recommended spacing of 2,000 feet.
“The ramps are extremely close in a lot of cases,” said Jamille Robbins, who facilitated a hearing on the department’s behalf at Miller Park Recreation Center in Winston-Salem on July 24. He added that the “short leading distance” creates “conflict points,” leading to a higher likelihood of collisions.
Few question the need for the renovation of the expressway.
“Every time I drive Business 40 I feel like I’m taking a gamble with my life,” said Rosalba Ledezma, co-chair of the design review committee for the Creative Corridors Coalition.
The department has also deemed 10 out of 11 bridges in the 1.2-mile corridor to be “structurally deficient.”
Considering that the number of interchanges no longer meet federal transportation design standards, the state Department of Transportation is considering two options, which would alternately decommission interchanges at Cherry/Marshall or Main/Liberty. The two current sets of interchanges are both one-way pairings, with Cherry and Main streets carrying northbound traffic, Liberty and Marshall streets accommodating southbound vehicles.
Several speakers during the hearing made the case for retaining an interchange at Cherry/Marshall, while closing access at Main and Liberty.
Kathleen Kiser, an Old Salem resident, noted that employees and students from UNC School of the Arts, Salem College & Academy and Winston-Salem State University use the Main Street corridor to get to downtown restaurants, and she thinks the concentration of vehicular traffic would disrupt an important pedestrian connection, should that street become the primary interchange.
“We have people coming from Raleigh who take Business 40 through Winston-Salem to get to the mountains,” she said. “They’re trying to get to the hotels, the restaurants, the convention center. I think if we kept open the Cherry/Marshall interchange that really showcases downtown. To use Liberty/Main, they’re mainly seeing government buildings.”
Bill Oakes, assistant athletic director for Wake Forest University and tournament director for the Winston-Salem Open, noted that Cherry Street links Business 40 to the university; it becomes University Parkway north of Northwest Boulevard. The university owns several athletic facilities along the corridor, including Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, BB&T Field and Leighton Tennis Stadium.
“Wake Forest feels Cherry/Marshall is a vital interchange for the city,” Oakes said. “To change it from Cherry/Marshall to Liberty/Main would make a very circuitous and difficult access to these spectator venues.”
A number of speakers including Oakes, Salem College & Academy Administration Director Anna Gallimore and Children’s Museum of Winston-Salem Executive Director Elizabeth Dampier argued that closing access to the expressway at Main and Liberty would allow those streets to revert to two-way and free up land for development. Those changes would be likely to lend the streets more commercial vitality and a more pedestrian-friendly experience.
Larry Woods, executive director of the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, also expressed support for the Cherry/Marshall alternative. The housing authority is located in the Loewy Building, part of the vibrant restaurant and theater area serviced by the Cherry Street interchange.
Drew Joyner, human environment section head for the state Transportation Department, said most public comments at a previous hearing on July 22 also favored the Cherry/Marshall alternative, although Winston-Salem Dash President Geoff Lassiter spoke in favor of the Main/Liberty alternative. The closure of Cherry/Marshall would allow the Broad Street interchange near BB&T Stadium to remain open.
The Cherry/Marshall option would cost an estimated $66.9 million compared to a price tag of $74.0 million for the Main/Liberty option. Under both alternatives, the Green Street bridge would be converted to a pedestrian walkway and the Spruce Street bridge would be removed altogether.
Robbins said that to alleviate temporary congestion created by the two-year closure of Business 40, the Transportation Department plans to undertake improvements at a number of interchanges, including Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Cherry/Marshall, and at Academy Street and Peters Creek Parkway. Improvements typically involve the addition of turning lanes to ease traffic movement.
Volunteers with the nonprofit Creative Corridors Coalition have attempted with varying degrees of success to shape the Business 40 renovation project. The Winston-Salem City Council appointed 11 members of the design review committee on Mayor Allen Joines’ recommendation to review the Business 40 plan for consistency with guidelines adopted by Creative Corridors, including connectivity, sustainability and iconic presentation. Ledezma asked state transportation officials to provide an opportunity for review by the committee “at every stage,” adding, “It would be a mistake to consider betterments after the fact.”
After the meeting, she said that the renovated expressway and network of bridges and interchanges “needs to be a statement of the history and future of the city. The solid retaining wall may reflect
solidarity with the past. The elements of the bridges should express ideas of technology and innovation, versus simply adding medallions.”
Earlier renderings published by the Creative Corridors Coalition have displayed arches over the interchanges and other iconic flourishes. But those elements have not been included in bridge alternatives presented by the Transportation Department, nor has sources of funding been identified.
“I think there’s some possibility of making an iconic statement,” Ledezma said. “This is of interest to the city. It’s not clear what form that may take.”