Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Why come do I always get stuck with Orange County? Ten years I been putting on this monkey suit, dishing out the party line like it was champagne and caviar, and still they give me Orange County. Why not Raleigh or Cary? Why not Johnston County? Now those are people with good sense, they understand the poignancy of your basic six-axle logging truck, the eloquence of a six-lane freeway, the pure-tee poetry of a new cloverleaf. But no, they give all the best places to the young guys now, kids that’d get chewed up and spat out in Orange County. Yeah, well, I’m feeling pretty gnawed on myself. And Hillsborough no less! Place thinks it’s Xanadu or something. Buncha pantywaist poets and tree-huggers. Sure they got a river and some sort of historic trading path and Indian relics. But what do they think, the march of civilization stops for a bunch of arrowheads? Jeez, it about took an act of God to get that Wal-Mart put up over east of town, which you ask me is a constitutional right of every American.
OK, get ready, here comes one, fussing about how new roads bring more development and development brings more roads. And your point is? Get a clue, lady. I work for the DOT; we build roads, that’s our job, our raisin detriment. The more roads, the more development; the more development, the more roads, ta-da-boom. It’s a circle of life kind of thing. A win-win situation far as we’re concerned.
Or what about this one here with her finger in my face, talking about habitat fragmentation and run-off impacts. So I tell her, real calm-like, that detailed traffic modeling and analyses were conducted on each of the proposed corridors, and each corridor was screened for potential impacts to the human and natural environments. Yadayadayada. She comes back with how a federal DOT-sponsored study showed how no new road construction in 75 metropolitan areas has actually reduced congestion. I hate it when they bring their own numbers.
See lady, here’s the thing. You live in the Triangle, it’s a fast-growing place. Progress with a capital P. That’s why come you got your Wal-Mart, Kmart, Stein Mart, PetsMart; why come you got your Blockbuster, Nordstrom, Starbucks, Old Navy, Southpoint, North Pointe, sundry other Pointes, Shoppes, Crossings and Streets, not to mention seven major grocery stores and a dozen Internet cafes, all in easy driving distance from your house. Which, incidentally, is connected to above-mentioned amenities by a road. Courtesy of yours truly.
Whoa Nellie, was that spit? Perfect. Now I got a wet spot on my tie.
Remember your training! Do not engage. Do not allow yourself to be provoked. Eyes glazed and focused on the middle distance, facial muscles relaxed, shoulders slouched. Remember Charlie? Poor bastard. Told that woman what she could do with her federally protected wildflowers and the next thing you know he’s holding the grease pan down at the Jiffy Lube. There’s a lesson in that, all right. Do not, under any circumstances, argue, debate, disagree, shout back, frown, wince or come to blows.
You know, the worst is when they get it. I mean, over in Raleigh you can build all the inner and outer loops you want. We got us an asphalt apron around that city to make a highwayman proud. Brings tears to my eyes every time I get on the Beltline.
And you can, by God, call it what it is, too: a highway, thruway, freeway, expressway. Not like here, were you got to be so careful. Like how we’ve been trying to call this bypass the Elizabeth Brady Road Extension, like, you know, no biggie, just a little more of the same. Pay no attention to this teensy little four-lane corridor with a 15-million-dollar price tag and a ticket to the Promised Land for every developer downwind of the smoking pitch.
But no. These people, they’re on it like a duck on a June bug.
Hey, get a load of this guy. Poor shmuck. That yellow option goes through and his house is demolition central. All he wants to know is, when should he start packing his bags, but he can’t get two words in edgewise on account of Hummus Breath here, carrying on about the destruction of public land in the Eno River Valley.
Can somebody please tell me what it is about the Eno River? I mean, I’ve been down there and it looks to me like any other river. Brown. Wet. Some crayfish down in there. Just try to build a road over it, though, and people act like it’s the high holy River of Jordan or something.
Or what about this one, carrying on about the old race track? You seen the old race track? Like maybe if you look real hard under the weeds you might find a flattened tin of chaw. It’s not like they’re still running the cars or anything, something worth saving. I haven’t exactly seen Dale Jr. showing up lobbying for the place. But here’s this guy talking about all the trails around it, the floodplain, something called the “Poplar Ridge Steep Slopes and Bottomland.” Steep Slopes and Bottomland … Memo to self: Investigate Poplar Ridge for fill-in potential.
Or this one here, accusing us of having ulterior motives about the future of Saint Mary’s Road. So OK, the bypass opens a four-lane road right up to the western lip of Saint Mary’s, practically at the doorstep of Durham County. And, yeah, those folks up in Durham have been after us to widen Saint Mary’s down through Durham County. A straight cross-country shot to I-85 so the rich folks in Treyburn won’t have to sit in all that Roxboro Road mess. Can you blame them? You know what kind of gas mileage a Hummer gets in stop-and-go traffic? So, what, we put a little four-lane road connecting up with Saint Mary’s, put the heat on to widen the whole thing, right up to 15-501. Sounds like a plan to me.
What time is it, anyway? Jeez. Two more hours of this. Look at them coming in the door. Somebody hands me a list of questions and comments and asks me to respond to them. In your dreams, buddy. I like this question here, though: “Why is not Option 4 ‘No Build,’ and its implications for growth and transportation flow, in the newsletter?” Uh. Duh? Let me explain it again, nice and slow. We’re the Department of Transportation. Say it after me, children. Department. Of. Transportation. We’re the guys that brought you North Raleigh, South Charlotte and I-40, that sweet stretch of road between Raleigh and Chapel Hill that makes Jesse Helm’s arteries look like virgin pipeline. We just can’t add lanes fast enough, have you noticed? Build it and they’ll scrum, that’s our philosophy.
And what about this one: “The Walkable Hillsborough Coalition is in favor of pedestrian safety improvements and local congestion-relief measures.” See, what you got here is your basic slippery slope. You start solving traffic congestion like this, with these common sense measures and such, and the next thing you know we’ll have transit rails and carpools and all manner of un-American nonsense and people.
Oh, by the way, people, please fill out one of our handy-dandy citizen comment sheets available for your convenience at the front door. Go ahead, knock yourself out. We got a paper shredder back at the office that’d turn the Library of Congress into hamster shavings.
All right, we’re in the home stretch. Keep it calm. Throw around some numbers. Talk impact studies, Purpose and Need Statement. Shrug your shoulders like hey, it isn’t your fault the Triangle ranks so high in sprawl, bad air and dirty water. Put that one on the doorstep of your friendly local government, they’re the ones that can’t resist just one more housing development, one more mall, one more zoning concession to the local developer. And once that happens, you’re gonna need somebody to come in and fix all that new congestion. Somebody, somebody to make people happy; that’s what I am, I’m the fix-it-up chappie. Just smile, show them your map, let them know that you are here on behalf of progress with a capital P.
On Sept. 23, the N.C. Dept. of Transportation held an “informational session” on the “Elizabeth Brady Road Extension,” a proposed bypass around the town of Hillsborough. The four-lane corridor, which has been discussed and debated for 30 years, is now moving toward approval by the Town Council, with construction scheduled to begin in 2010. Currently, the DOT is considering three possible corridor routes, each one looping north off I-85 east of Hillsborough and connecting with U.S. 70 Bypass at the intersection with St. Mary’s Road. The new road is meant to provide a safer and more convenient route for the north- and southbound traffic between I-85 and N.C. 86, and to lessen traffic on downtown Hillsborough’s Churton Street.
Of the three proposed corridors, one would destroy a considerable amount of Eno River valley land currently under the jurisdiction of Preservation North Carolina. This option also would cut through the old Occoneechee Orange Speedway and skirt the grounds of Hillsborough’s Ayr Mount estate, both recognized as historic properties. A second barely misses the historic properties but cuts along the edge of the river’s watershed and necessitates the destruction of several homes. The third would cut a swath through steep woodlands along the Eno River watershed. All but the third option would require the construction of a new four-lane road over the Eno River. Cost estimates range from $12 to $17 million for a roughly mile-and-a-half corridor and would, by DOT estimates, cut traffic on Hillsborough’s Churton Street by less than 30 percent. The Eno River Association and the Walkable Hillsborough Coalition both favor improvements to existing roads, citing regional sprawl as a by-product of new roads.
As is routine in the lead-up to large, controversial road projects, the DOT is currently accepting citizen input, mailing out the spiffily captioned Elizabeth Brady Update, soliciting written comments and sponsoring “informational sessions” like the one I attended in late September at Hillsborough’s Cameron Park Elementary School. At this particular session, DOT staff stood beside large tables across which were laid black-and-white aerial maps of downtown Hillsborough and the affected outlying region; the three corridor options were shown in green, red and yellow ink. Citizens arriving at the session were given the opportunity to walk around the room, view the maps, consider the choice, ask questions.
And, of course, voice their objections. Although the corridor is supported by some town council members (vote outcome is uncertain) and by a sizeable percentage of downtown Hillsborough neighborhoods, most of the locals who showed up on Sept. 23 were opposed to the project. A small handful were resigned, some were politely skeptical, many were loaded for bear. They crowded around the tables, hands on hips, firing questions and comments at the men from the state; for their part, the DOT staff calmly stood their ground, absorbing the onslaught, armed with their traffic analyses and an unwavering belief in the totem power of freshly laid asphalt.
And really, I tried to be a good reporter, to look at all sides of the issue, ask astute questions, analyze the data, collect pithy quotes. But in the end I became obsessed with these guys, these flacks from the DOT, stranded in hostile territory, standing stoically by their maps. What kind of bootcamp training, what psychotropic medications were necessary for them to come to these sessions and stand for three hours in the line of fire? Did they really believe what they were saying? What was their psychological profile, their Myers-Brigg score? And, finally, did any part of them remain detached, above the fray, watching the scene from above? What were these men thinking as they stood so patiently, calm in their shirtsleeves, steadfast in the face of the opposition?