The N.C. Department of Transportation will study a recently widened 6.6-mile mountainous stretch of U.S. 321 between Blowing Rock and Lenoir to determine whether a higher speed limit is warranted.
The $63.4 million project added two travel lanes, retaining walls, and curbs and gutters. State Traffic Engineer Kevin Lacy said NCDOT will conduct speed studies along the road, as well as examine crash data from the State Highway Patrol.
The speed limit was reduced from the statutory 55 miles per hour to 50 after the widening project was completed. Most people were not traveling that fast due to the roadway alignment.
“We picked the 50 mph design speed to help manage cost in the mountainous terrain,” Lacy said. “The 28 curves along the project were designed for a 50 mph speed limit. In order to get a higher design speed, the road would be required to be flatter with fewer curves. Now you have a wider road and can pass slower traffic in another lane. You could not do that before with the narrower road.”
This section of highway has intersecting roads and driveways, and because of factors such as vehicles stopped to make left turns or trying to get up to speed after turning onto the highway, there are safety concerns that are lessened by having the 50 mph speed limit.
At the top of the project, the speed limit reduces to 35 mph as the road narrows with several sharper curves heading into Blowing Rock. This section is scheduled to be part of a widening project that will begin later this year.
“We looked at every curve on this project,” Lacy said. “Factors of safety are built into design minimums. We will increase speeds above the minimum design speed after the road has been in operation and we observe how people drive, as well as examine crash data. If traffic moves along without safety problems, we will revisit the speed limit.”