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South Boston eyes roundabouts as fix for downtown rigs

South Boston News / September 30, 2019
South Boston is renewing its push to restore two-way travel through downtown by asking VDOT to approve traffic roundabouts that would prevent heavy truck traffic from rolling through the commercial district.

Although two-way downtown traffic has long been a goal of town officials and business owners, South Boston currently has no way to keep the big trucks out — which would have to happen for Main Street to become two-way again.

South Boston has “T” signs that direct truckers to bypass downtown by taking alternatives such as Hamilton Avenue out to U.S. 360, but “the signs are a suggestion,” said Town Manager Tom Raab. “We cannot enforce the signs because Main Street is a state-designated 501 route.”

Installing roundabouts — at the intersection of Wilborn Avenue and Broad Street, and at the foot of downtown at Main Street and Broad, next to the Dan River — could be a way to end the flow of heavy trucks in the historic district. The change also would require making Broad Street a two-way road to permit the movement of trucks heading south out to U.S. 58

“Truck traffic is a safety hazard for pedestrians,” said David McCollum of McCollum-Ferrell Famous Shoes. McCollum added he has never understood why truck traffic was allowed downtown in the first place.

Twenty years ago, Broad Street opened for incoming traffic and Main Street became one-way. The new artery pulled travelers from U.S. 58 and from the southern part of Halifax and North Carolina away from downtown by allowing them a way to shoot quickly past the commercial district. The diversion of traffic on Broad Street had a negative effect, business owners say.

“It is my opinion making Main Street one-way through downtown detrimentally hurt businesses,” says Barbara Cage, owner of Bistro 1888.

Another downtown business owner, Mary Bagwell Fletcher of Southern Plenty, added that “I don’t want [trucks] coming down Main Street.” Anyone who grabs take-out at Southern Plenty or any of South Boston’s other downtown eateries for a sit-down lunch at Constitution Square would likely feel the rumble of trucks rolling by; in one brief, mid-day stretch this week, a tractor-trailer rig could be seen passing through every two minutes.

Since 2008, converting Main Street and Broad Street to two-way traffic has been in the Town’s plans. In 2008, Town Council approved a 2035 Transportation Plan that envisioned alternate parallel north/south corridors to Wilborn and Main Streets.

“They have been talking about it for years,” said McCollum. Among other arguments for two-way traffic, the change would create a quieter, more peaceful downtown district, which would enhance revitalization efforts there and help attract new shops and restaurants.

In the next 30 days, VDOT is scheduled to begin surveys and an engineering assessment of the proposed change in traffic patterns, said Raab. “It will take about three months before we receive their recommendations,” he said.

Another argument in favor of changing the traffic flow is the impact on the second street affected under the plan — Broad.

In the old Bank of America building, now known as the Martican Building, Matt Hastings has an office with Summit Design and Engineering Services. From that vantage point, Hastings said, “In the past six months I’ve seen at least a dozen cars come south-bound up 501 into head-on traffic at the light beside the Post Office.”

So far, Hastings said, he hasn’t seen any accidents but there have been several close calls. Hastings agrees that making both Main Street and Broad Street two-way would alleviate the problem.

The Town of South Boston Comprehensive Plan 2030, which dates to 2010, states that from an economic perspective, providing two-way access through downtown will increase customer access and business trade, thereby enhancing the overall economy and social well-being of South Boston.

South Boston Town Council is scheduled to meet today for their monthly work session, starting at 5:45 p.m. at Council Chambers on Yancey Street, at which time the subject of a two-way downtown conversion may be discussed.

If approved by VDOT, downtown merchants could see a directional change in two years.

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