Newman Aguiar is a relative newcomer to the decades-old debate over Durham’s Eno Drive. But it hasn’t taken him long to figure out why discussion of the project is so grinding, frustrating and emotionally charged.

Aguiar was at a meeting in late September when a transportation group that includes elected leaders from three counties voted overwhelmingly to remove the much-vilified road from the official planning map. The 7-1 decision met with cheers from environmental and community activists who’ve been fighting a northern highway loop for years.

But a few weeks later, the Northeast/Northwest Loop, as it’s known in state transportation-speak, was back on the table–albeit in slightly altered form. Members of the regional Transportation Advisory Committee are slated to meet this morning to vote on new verions of the now 12-mile loop, which connects U.S. 70 and I-85 to the south. A new alignment runs north from I-85 to Roxboro Road along Old Oxford Highway and Snow Hill Road. Another new alignment intersects with Roxboro between Snow Hill and Orange Factory roads.

For Aguiar and other Eno Drive opponents, the road’s revival is more proof that when it comes to highway loops, the state Department of Transportation has no intention of accepting the will of the local community. “I’m offended that DOT can come in and in the face of overwhelming opposition, reinsert this option back into the plan,” says Aguiar, who lives in Trinity Park and got involved in city traffic issues as a member of Partners Against Crime. “They’re running over the objectives of the community.”

That’s a rap DOT has earned in other highway flaps around the region–most recently, over its refusal to build a noise wall that parents and teachers at Durham’s Club Boulevard Elementary School say is needed to shield the school from construction on nearby I-85. (School leaders and DOT officials are still negotiating.)

In the case of Eno Drive, state transportation officials say the criticisms are undeserved. The state has long been in favor of a northern Durham loop–and must sign off on any plan using state Highway Trust Fund money. But, says Janet D’Ignazio, DOT’s chief planning officer, since last spring when a local committee was formed to end the stalemate over Eno Drive, the state has “stepped back and let the metropolitan planning organization run the process.”

If that’s true, how could the loop plan reappear after being soundly rejected by leaders from Durham, Orange and Chatham counties who sit on the Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC)? Answers are as twisted and hard to read as the lines on regional road maps. But a few things are clear:

Local and state transportation engineers were the ones who put the northern loop (informally known as “Option 7”) back on the map. Members of the Technical Coordinating Committee (TCC) say they did so in response to comments made at public hearings and concerns about Durham’s growing traffic problems. “We felt that without this facility, we were getting congestion levels that were not acceptable,” says Mark Ahrendsen, Durham’s transportation director. “We respect and understand the policy recommendation [of the TAC], but from a technical perspective, this is what we feel is appropriate.”

Community leaders find that argument hard to swallow because those same engineers rejected an almost identically designed loop last spring after finding it wouldn’t ease traffic congestion on Roxboro Road and ran too close to environmentally sensitive areas. Ahrendsen says the TCC will present new studies that incorporate the effects of other proposed road improvements on the loop plan–including widening of I-85 and transforming U.S. 70 into a six-lane freeway–and show it can help prevent future gridlock without hurting sensitive watersheds.

But community leaders remain unconvinced. “Our experience of the past six months is that DOT and the city engineers are glossing over problems and now they’re pushing an alignment they had rejected,” says John Schelp, president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association. “It’s frustrating, it’s fishy and it smells.”

As for public comments, while the majority logged by the TAC came from citizens opposed to a northern loop, the voices in favor had weight. They belonged to local business interests represented by the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, which has long championed Eno Drive as an economic development generator.

Chamber officials are happy to take credit for reviving the northern loop. “We are the ones who put this forward,” says Anne Peele, the organization’s vice president of governmental relations. “If you want to call it the Chamber recommendation you can.”

Peele says after the TAC voted to drop the loop, Chamber leaders approached DOT about what could be done to “rescind the vote.” DOT advised them to lobby local officials as the long-term planning process moved forward. One who spoke up for reviving the loop was Ty Cox, a state Board of Transportation and TAC member who had opposed the original Eno Drive when he was on Durham’s City Council.

Cox says he can’t remember which groups approached him about Option 7, but the idea appealed to his belief that some kind of loop has to be built in northern Durham. “When you say no, you say no to about $600 million” in highway funds, Cox says. “You can’t ignore what the city of Durham and the technical staff is recommending. You can’t ignore DOT’s concerns. This Option 7 recommendation was what I was under the impression everyone could be OK with.”

Option 7 builds on an earlier compromise that elected officials, business leaders and environmentalists came up with after years of fighting over a loop that would have circled west toward Eno State Park. Like the current loop, the Northern Durham Parkway, as that compromise was known, followed existing roads to the 5,300-acre Treyburn development and connected with N.C. 15-501 near Snow Hill Road.

The new Chamber-backed proposal also contains other road improvements, including the East End Connector. Neighborhood leaders have been pushing that road, which links the Durham Freeway and U.S. 70, as a less-expensive, less sprawl-friendly way to address traffic problems. Some Eno Drive opponents see inclusion of the Connector as a carrot that’s being dangled to distract attention from the fact that Option 7 was previously discounted as a solution. “Now, instead of threatening we’ll lose money if we don’t go for this loop, they’re saying we’ll get more money,” says Donna Deal, founder of the No Build Coalition. “It’s, ‘Look Durham. We want this so badly you can have all these other projects plus the Connector. Just please take Eno Drive!’”

It’s not only elected leaders who are hearing from the Chamber. Business leaders are taking a page from Eno Drive opponents by launching grassroots organizing efforts to build support for the revived highway loop among residents of northern Durham neighborhoods. “Elected officials have been hearing from a very small group of people on this,” Peele says. “They aren’t the residents of Northern Durham. They’re from Old North Durham. We don’t think the people who are really affected have been contacted.”

Loop critics say organizing’s all well and good. But why should business leaders be allowed to reopen a debate that elected officials essentially closed? Some neighborhood activists see the new loop plan as a Trojan Horse that, once back on the map, will be used to push for a more extensive road that business leaders have long wanted in northern Durham. “Now’s the time to say ‘No’ to the Treyburn PORKway,” community activist Steve Bocckino wrote in a recent e-mail to Durham officials.

Not all Eno Drive opponents are as set against the newest loop design. In a recent letter to The News & Observer, environmental activist Milo Pyne–who’s argued against Eno Drive’s western trek through the state park–said he feels Option 7 is worth a look. “I believe at least some parts of this proposed route may be needed,” Pyne wrote, “and that this route is not as objectionable as some others.”

Some elected leaders are walking the same line. County Commissioner Becky Heron, for example, is wary of DOT’s overwhelming desire for a loop (“when DOT draws a line on a map, they don’t know how to use an eraser,” she says) but insists Option 7 “is not Eno Drive anymore to my way of thinking. We need to see what traffic this route will handle and what the air quality effect is.”

Orange County leaders are less equivocal. A resolution the county commissioners approved Oct. 30 calls for removing Option 7 from the long-range transportation plan because it “corresponds to a future loop or freeway into Orange County along the Mason Road/St. Mary’s Road corridor” that will harm rural buffers.

Today’s vote won’t be the last step in the process. Besides traffic counts, dollar figures for the loop must also be analyzed. DOT officials say Option 7 can be paid for out of the Highway Trust Fund. But more public hearings will be needed and more road designs could be proposed before final decisions on the long-range transportation plan are made in May.

For his part, Aguiar hopes those decisions will honor the desires of ordinary citizens over powerful business leaders or state traffic engineers. “Right now, they are championing something the TAC has voted against and we don’t know if we can pay for,” he says. “I hope reasoned minds win and Eno Drive is taken off the map.” EndBlock