The “jury” is on what should be done about the one-way traffic situation in downtown Mount Airy, which is nothing, according to the results of a recent poll.
It showed the majority of respondents (44%) “strongly like” the idea of maintaining the current two lanes of one-way traffic along North Main Street through the central business district, with a further 35% liking this configuration, but not strongly.
Only 16% of respondents dislike one-way/two-way traffic and 6% strongly like it.
The North Main section scouted for potential design changes referenced in the survey spans between Independence Boulevard and Pine Street.
Another possible adjustment that has been suggested for this section is to replace the currently existing traffic lights along the path with stop signs where possible, for which the survey showed strong support.
Fifty-three percent of survey respondents either like (28%) or strongly like (25%) this alternative, with results showing that 47% don’t want red lights replaced.
First conclusions of the plan
The survey results and other preliminary findings about downtown Mount Airy were presented at a city council meeting last Thursday by staff from the consulting firm Benchmark which is updating a plan previous director for this area from 2004.
In November, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted to allocate $67,000 in city funding for the modernized plan toward a total funding commitment of approximately $125,000 – also involving a financial contribution from Mount Airy Downtown Inc. .
Benchmark has provided internal planning-related services to Mount Airy since 2011 as part of a privatization move and receives the additional funding for the downtown effort above its normal annual contract price.
Although the plan won’t be complete until this summer, city officials were briefed last week on the progress made so far by the Benchmark team. His report was based on first-hand observations, two days of listening sessions with local residents, including downtown stakeholders, and the recent survey.
It was available to the general public online until January 31, with 481 people responding.
While those administering the survey say that number has exceeded an initial target, Commissioner Jon Cawley stressed at the meeting that it represents only about 4% of Mount Airy’s population.
In addition to favoring the current pattern of one-way traffic, respondents, among other preferences:
• Expressed some support for moving to a one-lane/one-way configuration with angled parking and loading areas as an alternative, which many also dislike. (Benchmark president Jason Epley, who led the presentation, said the displayed support for one-way/one-way traffic contradicted the general preference for leaving the existing format alone, but offered no explanation. )
• Eighty-three percent of respondents oppose a move to two-way traffic of one lane each way with loading zones.
• Fifty-three percent strongly support another oft-cited proposal of burying overhead power lines, which Benchmark staff say is not feasible due to high cost – amplified by the presence possible thick granite under the surface which has plagued many projects.
• Fifty-five percent visit downtown several times a week or more, primarily to eat/entertain, shop and attend special events.
• Although 56% consider downtown Mount Airy to be great, improvements have been made, such as extended business hours and alternative entertainment options. Having rock concerts at the Earle Theater instead of just old music is one example mentioned that would particularly appeal to young people.
Parking, transportation misconceptions
So far, the work on the master plan update has served to bust some common myths, including the one that downtown Mount Airy lacks adequate parking.
Most survey respondents believe it is easy (45%) or very easy (18%) to park there.
There are 2,343 parking spaces in total, according to the presentation, including 232 on the street, although Benchmark representatives cite that it may not be exactly where customers want it.
“There are definitely peak times during the day and on weekends where it can be difficult,” Epley said, adding that it might require driving around the block to find a spot.
The consultant also mentioned a common problem that has apparently plagued downtown Mount Airy since the early days of the automobile, with street spaces being used by owners and/or employees of businesses located there.
“There’s a problem with cars parked on the street all day,” Epley said, “15 to 20 cars a day.”
He mentioned that capacity could be increased by forcing these people to park elsewhere.
Another misconception dismissed by the study so far is that the amount of traffic puts pressure on downtown streets.
Epley said the results show Independence Boulevard, Pine Street and Renfro, the busiest routes, “could easily handle more volume.”
However, this does not mean that there are no danger points, with the intersection of Pine and Main being the most dangerous for vehicular and pedestrian traffic.
Parents with young children, as well as the elderly, are particularly at risk, according to the Benchmark team, who also believe that the region as a whole is not conducive to cycling.
But overall, Mount Airy has one of the best downtown environments of any small town in North Carolina, according to the consultants, with features like an amphitheater, the Mount Regional History Museum Airy and others.
City government and downtown leaders have found it necessary to update the 18-year-old study by incorporating new elements to better guide future investment in the central business district, private and public, in a way consistent and profitable.