While it didn’t quite set off a full-on panic, an innocuous, brief and premature social media post about a new, improved — and slower — speed limit planned for the new, improved Business 40 did nonetheless cause a kerfuffle.
“Speed on the new Salem Parkway will be 45 mph, not 55 mph as originally planned,” read a Facebook update put up Tuesday to the group Winston-Salem Business 40 Improvements. “But, because of the design, traffic will flow more efficiently.”
Wait a second.
An early selling point to the $99.2-million project was that it would make Business 40 through downtown a safer, cleaner road.
Closing and rebuilding the road for up to two years was supposed to eliminate drag-strip mergers on prehistoric ramps. The last vestiges of danger caused by a poorly designed highway that snaked its way through downtown would be conspired to the ash bin of motoring history. Commuters would finally be free to safely cruise through town at a comfortable 55 mph.
Until Tuesday. Or so it seemed.
So far, so good
Within minutes of the posting, a sizable chunk of the online commentariat exploded in disbelief and dismay. Nearly 50 comments and half as many shares sparked a run of theories, opinions and debate.
And why wouldn’t it?
Traffic surveys taken before the closure showed that some 80,000 vehicles — half belonging to commuters — per day relied on the old road. Locals, particularly those of a certain age, recalled years of treacherous driving caused by a highway that was obsolete the day it opened in 1961.
And yet news that the N.C. Department of Transportation had at long last decided to fix a mistake was the source of considerable consternation and fear.
DOT did an exceptional job selling the project and preparing the motoring public for what was to come. And to its credit — as well as the construction companies hired to mastermind this thing — DOT has done yeoman’s work getting various pieces of the rebuild done well ahead of schedule.
If progress continues at the current pace, Mayor Allen Joines’ overly optimistic pronouncement in February that our temporary traveling nightmare could end as soon as the end of the year might pan out.
And yet the mere mention Tuesday of a reduction in the posted speed limit threatened to take a bite out of all that accumulated goodwill.
A sampling of the immediate reaction:
“I thought the point of taking away some of the exits and on ramps was so that traffic could go 55 safely,” read one.
“So all this money spent to redo this road is a COLOSSAL waste of money if you aren’t going to raise the speed limit!!!!” read another.
“One of the things the ‘Business 40 talking heads’ emphasized to get people on board with this renovation was the increased speed,” read another. “This was talked about in several community planning/announcement meetings about business 40. Why tout something so strongly for several years only to change it now?”
That’s a solid question.
Limits won’t matter
It didn’t take long for the dust-up to capture attention of those in officialdom
Jeff MacIntosh, a member of the Winston-Salem City Council and a prolific (and clever) user of social media, re-posted a version to his friends/constituents that pushed it further afield.
His conclusion matched that reached by many others: Whatever speed limit the DOT ultimately chooses really won’t matter.
“People are going to drive as fast as they feel safe driving,” MacIntosh said. “There aren’t enough police in the world to (tightly) enforce speed limits.”
The larger issue was that announcing a 45 mph speed limit via Facebook without warning in the middle of the day caught a lot of people by surprise. “The explanation didn’t exactly help,” MacIntosh said.
It didn’t help because for hours — an eternity in the warp-speed digital age — there was no immediate explanation other than a vague mention of “design and efficiency.”
That changed late Tuesday afternoon with an update filed under the heading “Clearing the Confusion.”
The explanation was the 45 mph speed limit would be temporary so that designers and engineers could study its effects before making a final decision. Engineers by their very nature are cautious and tend to want to act precisely and make data-driven conclusions.
Besides, long before the road even closed, Business 40 had a posted speed limit of 45 from Knollwood Street to Fifth Street. So limiting the lead-feet to 45 mph through downtown when the Salem Parkway re-opens didn’t seem to be a huge deal.
Until it was.
Greta Lint, a DOT communications specialist specifically assigned to the Business 40 project, gracefully accepted blame Wednesday for the confusion.
“It was an incomplete posting,” Lint wrote in an e-mail. “I only had half the story. We (DOT officials and engineers) met and now I’m up to speed.”
The hope here is that the rest of us soon will be, too, whether that speed winds up being 45 or 55.