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The Michigan Left Superstreet: Heading Eastbound: A Midwestern traffic pattern takes a detour to North Brunswick County

Turn right in order to turn left? It’s certainly a roundabout way to make a left turn. This circumfluous traffic route is none other than the Michigan Left Turn, and it is causing some heads to spin as they adapt to the Midwestern import at the intersection of Highway 17 and Waterford Way.

Businesses in Waterford have been in a “wait and see” mode since June when the new intersection made its debut in Brunswick County and in North Carolina.

“Oh, everybody grumbles about it,” says Martin Tillier, owner of The House of Wine and Cheese in Waterford. “But that’s because everybody grumbles about everything.”

The Michigan Left Turn means drivers can’t turn left at a four-way intersection. Instead, left-turning motorists must all turn right, and then queue up again about a quarter-mile down the road at another light where they can then make a U-turn. Cars turning left from any point in the intersection end up engaging in this counter-clockwise square dance that lasts anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes.

One reason for all the do-see-do’ing is safety. As the name implies, the Michigan Left—or “superstreet”- style intersection—was first developed in Detroit to avoid hordes of left-turning vehicles staring one another down at busy traffic junctions. The first ever such intersection was designed in 1960 by Joseph Hobria and Joseph Marlow, and built at Detroit’s Eight Mile Road and Livernois Avenue. Since then, the Great Lakes State has constructed some 700 Michigan Left intersections, sparking equal parts revilement and praise in countless newspaper columns and weblogs—often written, it seems, by people who’ve moved to Michigan from other states.

It doesn’t seem to make sense, Tillier says, to have to turn right in order to turn left to leave the subdivision of Waterford and travel toward Wilmington on Highway 17. Tillier makes the strange right-then-U-turn maneuver at least twice a week, when he drives to the Port City to host wine-related radio shows on one area station. No, the new intersection doesn’t seem logical, he says, but it is.

Troy Peoples, an engineer with the company Stantech, holds the honor, dubious or not, of bringing the concept to the North Carolina coast. Peoples designed the model of intersection that’s now in operation at Highway 17 at Waterford and at one neighboring subdivision—he calls his intersection a “modified superstreet” rather than a traditional Michigan Left Turn, since there are traffic signals at the U-turn points. No matter what you call it, it’s the first of its kind in the Tar Heel state—and North Carolina Department of Transportation says it’ll be far from the last.

Peoples says the new style’s number one advantage is safety, since it cuts down substantially on potential points of conflict between cars. He also says that a traffic study on Highway 17 completed in 2005 showed that a Michigan Left or superstreet design would best alleviate traffic problems on the rapidly developing corridor, which stretches from Wilmington’s doorstep to the South Carolina border. The alternative, he says, would have been to add two additional lanes to handle the increased traffic the area’s expecting in the years to come.

“Now, there’s no widening, and none of the environmental issues that go along with that.”

But safety comes at a price: the superstreet-style intersections are much more expensive than traditional eight-cycle lights. According to Bert Exum, the developer who planned Waterford, a traditional intersection would cost about $175,000. The new superstreet intersections actually ran some $1.2 million—which was absorbed by the development companies, not the taxpayers. The intersection’s construction was funded by a consortium of developers in advance of a new Wal-Mart expected to open across the way this Spring.

As it’s planned now, developers will also pay for all future superstreet intersections—which will run all along Highway 17. Peoples says the new intersections will increase the corridor’s traffic capacity by 50 to 60 percent.

Exum says the addition of new Michigan Left style intersections should not result in much adjustment at all for people traveling north and south along 17.

“By synchronizing the lights, if you get stopped by one as you go along, you should not be stopped by  another.” Exum admits the “Turn right to turn left” style intersection might take a little longer for subdivision residents and visitors to get used to. But, like Peoples, Exum says the benefits of increased safety outweigh such concerns.

Theresa Morgan, who owns Simply Divine, a furniture and gifts store at Waterford, says that if the Michigan Left Turn intersection is safer, then she’s happy to have it. But like other area business owners, initial news of the plan worried her.

“I had my concerns, because as a retailer you want to make sure it’s convenient for the customer.” Morgan fears that potential customers might drive past rather than make a U-turn in order to come back and visit.

And Jimmy Cone, who owns a Port City Java in Waterford, says that the intersection has already cost him some of his former morning regulars.

“One of the negative factors is customers are not able to leave Waterford and turn left to go to Wilmington. They have to turn right and then take a U-turn in order to go… and there are people I don’t get now that I used to get.

Cone says he’d like to see folks be able to turn left out of Waterford onto Highway 17. But some business owners say that drive-by customers aside, the new Michigan Left intersection is really an improvement. Before, Tillier says, the spot was “a mess,” plain and simple – an intersection frequently clogged with cars waiting to turn left. Now things are moving much faster.

“Compared to what it was, it does feel slower because you’re sitting at a stoplight. But before that you were just sitting in a queue of traffic waiting to turn left anyway,” he says.

The subdivisions of Waterford, Magnolia Greens—and the soon-to-open Brunswick Forest—will be the testing grounds of the Michigan Left for the state, the mini-Detroits of North Carolina. Everyone agrees, though, that the real test will come this Spring when Wal-Mart opens, bringing to the area thousands of new rivers and just as many potential new customers.

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