Whatever happened to the Hillsborough Street reconstruction project in Raleigh? It was the most ambitious community planning initiative Raleigh’s ever seen, with 500 people participating over the course of a week in the fall of 1999, drawn to the task by their high hopes for what Hillsborough Street could be, and broad recognition that it was getting worse and worse.

The plan that emerged was, for Raleigh, revolutionary. It proposed roundabouts–little traffic circles–in place of traffic-stalling stop lights, intersections and left turns. It included wider sidewalks for pedestrians, with just two free-flowing traffic lanes for cars instead of the current three-or-four lane obstacle course. Utilities would be buried, lighting spruced up–think Glenwood South. The big idea was to make the stretch of Hillsborough Street in front of N.C. State University pedestrian-friendly, so the businesses there can stay alive and new mixed-use developments go up to fill in the street’s many blanks.

A big plus: an estimated $4 million a year savings as a result of fewer accidents, according to Kimley-Horn, the consulting firm that came in later to see if what the community had planned made any sense. Yes, it did, the firm concluded: “The finished product will be an important destination in Raleigh, one that contributes to the city’s economy and the quality of life. … Hillsborough Street will once again become a center of activity rather than a thoroughfare.”

Total cost: $27 million or more, depending on what new parking facilities are added.

More than four years later, though, the project is stuck in the transportation machinery between the city and state. The N.C. Department of Transportation doesn’t really like it, but hasn’t killed it. Raleigh wants it but won’t pay for it. The biggest thing that’s happened is that Nina Szlosberg, then head of the University Park Homeowners Association and the driving force behind the effort, is now a member of the state Board of Transportation, a position she owes to the fact that she’s a leading environmentalist (she’s got the designated enviro-seat) and president of the Conservation Council of N.C.

Ask around, and what you hear is that if anybody can get Hillsborough Street going–and it’s not a given that anyone can–“it’s Nina.” That’s what we heard at a fundraiser for Congressman Brad Miller at Szlosberg’s house, attended by many a DOT official up to and including Secretary Lyndo Tippett.

Tippett himself attributed the slow pace of things to the fact that Hillsborough Street is not high on the list of projects being pitched to the state by Raleigh-area governments. The Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), which puts that list together based on the votes of Raleigh, Wake County and 11 surrounding towns, put the Hillsborough Project 16th on its 2003 rankings.

“I’d like to see it in the top 10, anyway,” Tippett said. He added, when we asked, that a contribution from Raleigh “would make sense and be very helpful.” The figure he tossed off was “a couple or three million dollars.”

Szlosberg herself acknowledges the problems, but remains an optimist. “I’m still as committed to this as anything I’ve ever done.” So, she said, are the other members of the Hillsborough Street Partnership, a nonprofit she formed that includes Raleigh Planning Director George Chapman and Ed Johnson, formerly the city’s traffic planner and now executive director of CAMPO.

Johnson’s new post could help. He says CAMPO’s method of rating transportation projects undervalues the pedestrian gains, essentially leaving them out unless sidewalks are being added in a place that doesn’t have them at all. (Hillsborough Street has sidewalks. They’re just narrow and in crummy condition.)

Now that he has the job, Johnson says he hopes pedestrian safety improvements will be credited. “Hopefully, Hillsborough Street will score better.” In the top 10? “It could. I expect it will be one of the projects that gets a lot of discussion.”

All of this could have been avoided if Raleigh had chosen to pay for the project with city funds, breaking it down into the 10 segments Kimley-Horn outlined. Waiting for DOT funding, it’s up against the mega-highway projects DOT likes, plus a shorter but growing list of public transportation projects. Local “connector” roads like Hillsborough Street don’t rate with the state, Szlosberg’s discovered–something she hopes to change.

But under Mayor Paul Coble, the City Council said no to local funding. When Mayor Charles Meeker was elected in 2001 with Szlosberg’s help, they cooked up a plan to have Raleigh pay for the work on the promise of repayment later by DOT. But Tippett scotched that plan, taking the position that he’d need to know if Hillsborough Street would qualify for federal funding before he committed state support; otherwise, he’d get stuck with the whole bill.

To answer Tippett’s objection, Hillsborough Street is now undergoing a so-called NEPA analysis, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, to assess its impacts on the air, water, social and cultural assets of the surrounding communities. Finishing NEPA will take at least 18 months more, Szlosberg says.

“If it was just local money, the process would be easier,” Szlosberg agrees. “But as an environmentalist, I believe in the NEPA process. And while it’s going on, we can do the political work to get this higher on the CAMPO list and get it funded.”