Some eastbound motorists are confusing the St. Bernard turn lane (between double yellow lines) for the passing lane that previously began just up the hill. / Wendy Sack
CULLMAN – The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) recently began making modifications to the section of U.S. Highway 278 that runs through Cullman, from just west of I-65, all the way east to the junction of 278 and Alabama Highway 69. The agency calls them improvements, but some local residents are calling them dangerous.
Of the work being done on Hwy. 278 through west Cullman, ALDOT North Region Public Information Officer Seth Burkett said, “This project includes a small amount of safety widening — widening the shoulders to give vehicles room to recover — on U.S. 278 on the west end of the project near I-65. This is not a major feature of the project, but it is one of the things being done to improve safety. The two major aspects of the project are the resurfacing and access management improvements, such as installation of concrete islands and closing entrances or exits that are redundant and/or in close proximity. These are aimed at improving traffic flow and reducing vehicle conflicts and crashes, improving safety.”
And on the route from St. Bernard to East Point, Burkett commented, “This project will actually reduce the undivided four-lane portion from St. Bernard Drive to west of Alabama 69 to three lanes (two through lanes and a center turn lane). We believe this ‘road diet’ will help to reduce travel speeds and conflict points.”
It is the east side project that seems to be causing the most concern. Many eastbound drivers are accustomed to entering a passing lane and accelerating to pass slow traffic by the entrance to St. Bernard. That passing lane no longer exists, but initial road markings at the beginning point do not immediately indicate that the lane that is there is actually now a turn lane. Once drivers get further up the hill, they can see the solid/dashed striping and dual arrows typical of “suicide” turn lanes; by then, though, they could find themselves accelerating into oncoming traffic headed into St. Bernard.
A local resident watching conditions during the first day of the new lane configuration voiced his concern to The Tribune, “Just going to put this out there. I know that 278 has been four lane from St. Bernard to the east for years now, but the new pavement is clearly marked with two outside lanes and a turn lane right down the middle. It is NOT a driving lane people! It is a turn lane! There is a need for law enforcement presence to teach people the correct way to drive on it or there will be a head on collision. It will be bad because these drivers are just hammer down in the turn lane!”
When these concerns were passed along to ALDOT, Burkett responded in emails Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, “U.S. 278 has been changed from an undivided four-lane to a three-lane. The center lane is a two-way left turn lane as indicated by the yellow centerline stripes; it is not a travel lane for either direction. The striping is correct, though this is temporary striping and does not include all markings that will be present after the road has been resurfaced and permanent striping has been placed.
“Yesterday, it came to our attention that some motorists were misusing the center lane — treating it either as a through travel lane or a passing lane. We have discussed this issue with Cullman police, and we are going to be placing additional pavement markings, setting up message boards, and possibly installing permanent signs to help the public better understand.”
Mayor Woody Jacobs has been out of town recently, and had not gotten to see the construction since his return; but has already started hearing from residents. He spoke to The Tribune about his own set of concerns that he voiced to ALDOT when the project was still in the planning stages:
“Once you get to St. Bernard, all the way to East Point that’s not going to be four-lane any more. It’s going to be one lane going that way, one lane coming this way, and a center turn lane. When you get to East Point you’ve got 69 coming in, 278 coming in.
“This is what I told them, ‘I’m not an engineer; I’m just expressing my concerns. They’ve got between there and St. Bernard bridge to work it out. In the mornings, it’s backed up anyway; but you’ve got two lanes for them to stack. The pinch point is the bridge; now we’re going to create a pinch point at East Point. Now you’re going to be backing traffic up back towards Fairview and back towards Berlin. I don’t know how that’s going to work, but it’s going to happen.’
“I told them that day, ‘Guys, y’all can’t do all these changes and the city not know about it. I’m the one that's going to get blamed for it.’”
Jacobs said Thursday he planned to contact ALDOT to make sure arrangements were being made to protect drivers on Highway 278 East.
Until ALDOT completes the paving and marking of the area, and until local drivers become more accustomed to the change of lane layout, Cullman drivers are urged to exercise extra caution on Hwy. 278 between St. Bernard Abbey and East Point.
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