Tabitha Combs remembers when horses and cows grazed in fields around Oak Ridge's main intersection. The tree-lined Oak Ridge Military Academy, where young minds have been molded since the 1850s, anchored one of the four corners.
Thirty years later after Combs left her hometown, one of the oldest private military schools in America is still there. Otherwise, suburban development--a shopping center, fast-food restaurants, a drugstore, two banks and the town's ABC store--have created a busy, often congested intersection where two country roads once crossed in northwestern Guilford County.
In the parlance of what used to be horse country, town leaders have pulled back on the reins of development. Those efforts have intensified over the last year and a half, with a focus on creating a "village feel" for a commercial district that lacks a true core.
Combs, who is now a research associate at UNC Chapel Hill's Department of City and Regional Planning, recently advised town officials about proposed highway improvements. She, town leaders and N.C. Department of Transportation planners are navigating around a big roadblock.
N.C. 68 runs through Oak Ridge, cutting the commercial district in half. Imagine on a far smaller scale, Interstate 85 bisecting downtown Charlotte, or the state Capitol and the legislative building divided by 1-40 in Raleigh. The highway's intersection with N.C. 150 handles more than 30,000 vehicles a day, ranging from people commuting to and from work and tractor-trailer trucks grinding through the Triad.
"We're stuck with 68," says Jim Kinneman, Oak Ridge's mayor pro tem. "So we have to make the best of it."
Traffic converges in Oak Ridge because of its increasing appeal as a rural refuge and its proximity to Greensboro to the southeast and Winston-Salem to the west. With few jobs or major employers in Oak Ridge, many residents travel the two highways to and from work in those two cities.
N.C. 68 is a north-south route that carries lots of truck traffic between southwest Virginia and the Piedmont Triad. It shrinks to two lanes from four through Oak Ridge as it travels from Davidson County to northwest Guilford County.
Running east to west, N.C. 150 passes through Oak Ridge as two lanes known as the Danville-Salisbury Stagecoach Road in the colonial era. The opening of Interstate 73 in northwestern Guilford County last year has diverted some traffic, but the impact appears limited.
The community still bears markers of a simpler...