Our Opinion: Welcome visitors with friendly 2-way streets

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Downtown Wilson is open for business, but two prominent one-way streets in the city’s historic core look more like a no-trespassing sign than a welcome mat.

Visitors are sometimes perplexed by traffic patterns on Tarboro and Pine streets, two wide thoroughfares that could easily accommodate cars in both directions — and did so until the routing of U.S. 264 through downtown led city leaders to convert the streets in 1975.

Business boosters opposed the switch 42 years ago and still favor restoring two-way traffic. The Wilson City Council proposed converting the streets back to their original form as part of a 2010 comprehensive plan, but the money to do so has never materialized.

Enter Whirligig Station, the mixed-use development that will transform the Hi Dollar warehouse across from the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park into a 90-unit apartment complex with downstairs retail and restaurant space.

Waukeshaw Development, the firm overseeing the Whirligig Station project, has joined the chorus of business leaders calling for a return to two-way streets. Its megaphone amplifies the voices of downtown shopkeepers, and city leaders are paying attention.

“Trying to explain how to get to our shop if they are from Nash Street is a bit difficult right now,” Jenn Ferguson, co-owner of Touch of Country Boutique and Gifts, told Times reporter Brie Handgraaf. “Making one turn instead of going a few blocks and making a few turns would make our shop and others on those streets more accessible.”

Most Wilsonians are well-accustomed to Tarboro and Pine streets. Navigating them is second nature. But the same can’t be said for the thousands of visitors who will be drawn downtown by the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park.

One-way traffic has become a trickier proposition thanks to the same technology that makes it easier for out-of-towners to find their way to Wilson in the first place. Many motorists rely on GPS navigation devices, either the freestanding units mounted on dashboards and windshields or the mobile apps that come pre-installed on every smartphone.

Some navigation programs don’t recognize one-way streets. Drivers who are accustomed to obeying a disembodied voice dispensing turn-by-turn directions could be in for a brush with danger if they’re not paying attention. And, let’s face it, in this day and age of distracted driving, attention is a precious commodity.

We may all yearn for years gone by when motorists consulted creased maps and relied on road signs, intuition and a bit of common sense to get where they’re going, but like it or not, the digital driving aids are here to stay.

Wilson hasn’t made a firm commitment to convert Pine and Tarboro into two-way streets, but surveyors from Bartlett Engineering and Surveying have been spotted collecting information on the roadsides. It’s likely the city council will have a feasibility study in hand next year.

Unless the study includes information that puts the brakes on this plan that’s been on the back burner for seven years, we expect the traffic transition to continue full-speed ahead.

Kimberly Van Dyk, the city’s planning and community revitalization director, said going from one-way to two-way traffic has helped spur investment in homes along Raleigh Road and Atlantic Christian College Drive, with long-neglected houses being bought and restored to their former glory.

“Economic investment is always higher on two-way streets, so if we want to drive up economic investment in our downtown, it makes sense to look at it,” Van Dyk told the Times.

Changing road configurations will require an infusion of cash, and city officials should figure out how to pay for the switch without raising taxes or taking on public debt. But investing in historic downtown Wilson’s future growth and prosperity is an expense that must be borne.

Wilson’s working wonders to transform downtown into a destination for folk art aficionados, craft beer fans, photography buffs, diners, shoppers, families and young professionals. Reshaping the roads to welcome all the guests we’ve taken pains to invite is an essential piece of the puzzle.