Drive down any major road in Durham and there’s a chance you’re riding on a highway in disguise.
Erwin Road, Roxboro Street, Alston Avenue, Fayetteville Street, Duke Street, Chapel Hill Road, University Drive, Durham–Chapel Hill Boulevard, Holloway Street, Geer Street, Cornwallis Road, Hillandale Road, Hillsborough Road: a huge chunk of Durham’s roadways are owned and maintained by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NC DOT). NC DOT is responsible for more than 81,000 miles of roads statewide; only Texas’s transportation department maintains more miles of roads than North Carolina’s. Any changes to those roads are subject to NC DOT review before the city can consider adoption.
In September, this tension came to a head.
Members of Durham’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC), a citizen-led group that advises the city council and board of county commissioners, sent a letter to city and state officials rebuking a recent NC DOT decision to halt an infrastructure improvement project on Fayetteville Street near the interchange at NC-147.
The Fayetteville Street Bike Lane Project would bring new traffic patterns and bike lanes to a half-mile portion of Fayetteville Street between East Main Street and East Umstead Street. It’s part of a group of street redesigns planned throughout the city, totaling eight miles. The largest project, at Stadium Drive and Olympic Avenue, will span 2.5 miles.
“BPAC demands the original and already approved plan for the Fayetteville Street Bike Lane Project be reinstated, that work resume on this project immediately, and that this last-minute reversal be reprimanded by NCDOT,” the letter stated.
But John Sandor, the NC DOT district engineer for Durham, Granville, and Person Counties, says that, despite the fact that the city had done an analysis and provided a design for the Fayetteville Street project as well as bid out the project and awarded a contract, NC DOT never actually gave the city the final approval that was needed to move forward with the project.
“We were very clear up front that [the city’s design] was going to be a challenge,” Sandor says.
Following the letter in September, Sean Egan, the director of the city of Durham’s transportation department, clarified the miscommunication in an email back to BPAC, saying that the issue stemmed from a misunderstanding of NC DOT’s request for more analysis and pressure from the community on the Durham Transportation Department to keep projects on a tighter schedule. The city had already done an analysis of the project and submitted a design to NC DOT. After not hearing back from DOT, Egan says, the city assumed it had the green light to proceed with the project.
“We’ve been really focused on moving our projects forward.”
Egan adds that since there were no outstanding questions or comments from NC DOT’s district or congestion manager on the city’s design for the project, the city moved forward with bidding and awarding the project to NPS Solutions LLC for $499,996. Work on the project was slated to begin this fall.
“We’re not really in a position to wait on every single one of our projects for questions and comments [from NC DOT] to come forward,” Egan continues. “If we did that, we wouldn’t be able to move our projects and get them on the street. So, in a case like this, NC DOT can always come back and say, ‘We’ve done the additional review, we have checked with congestion management, and they’ve raised objections to doing this.’”
And that’s exactly what happened.
“We never had a version of an analysis that showed that it could work with separated bike lanes without some real traffic issues cropping up,” says Sandor. “There’s just too many cars right there.”
Shared goals, shared values?
Planning for the eight miles of projects started in 2018. The City of Durham received funding from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for these projects through a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program Grant. Sandor says that NC DOT serves a managerial role on many projects like these, collecting and distributing funds to the different municipalities.
“The FHWA has assigned that role to NC DOT to be that proxy to make sure the project gets built properly and those reimbursement dollars come back to the city through NC DOT,” says Sandor. “We essentially bankroll a lot of these projects off our budget, and then the CMAQ grants come in and fill in behind it. So NC DOT is always covering the costs of all these various projects, and then we go and seek reimbursement back from the federal government.”
But the management of those funds was compromised in 2020 when the state auditor’s office put NC DOT on probation for overspending its budget by 12.5 percent. The department was forced to lay off temporary staff and furlough employees, as well as press pause on hundreds of projects that weren’t already under construction.
In addition, budget constraints and delays due to COVID-19 stalled progress on the CMAQ projects planned for Durham. Implementation is finally set to begin this fall on the remaining 7.5 miles of new infrastructure, but now excluding the Fayetteville Street portion.
The BPAC letter argues that NC DOT did not approve the Fayetteville Street Bike Lane Project “due to traffic congestion concerns projected for 20 years from now.” The letter criticizes NC DOT’s decision not to approve the city’s design on four major points: the cost of a last-minute cancellation to the city; congestion concerns from NC DOT being “not well-founded”; lack of commitment to transportation safety initiative Vision Zero; and more disinvestment in the historic Hayti neighborhood.
BPAC member Mary Rose Fontana lives near the area where the Fayetteville Street project was anticipated. She says folks who bike or walk are forced to look for alternative ways to commute through the neighborhood.
“I don’t even look for places to go on Fayetteville Street, knowing we’re not going to drive there, because it’s not safe,” Fontana says. “It’s a deterrent for people who don’t want to risk their safety.”
Sandor says he acknowledges the group’s frustration. He notes that design standards have evolved significantly since NC-147 was first built but that the original design of the highways makes them hard to accommodate.
“It’s evidence of how things were done in the ’60s,” he says. “If that was built today, we’d have a nice big bridge, nice side paths, it would be great. We’d have everything out there for everybody, because that’s what we would do today. When that was built, we were lucky to have sidewalks on that bridge.”
Egan is still optimistic that the City of Durham and NC DOT can achieve their overall shared goals around public safety and zero emissions even after the recent miscommunication.
But advocates like John Tallmadge, executive director of the transportation-equity nonprofit Bike Durham, question whether those goals are still aligned.
“There is a choice about what is the priority of the various values that you are trying to achieve with your transportation decisions,” says Tallmadge.
Sandor says NC DOT’s approach is rooted in data.
“We want to see it in analysis,” says Sandor. “One of the things we point to is when someone says, ‘Well if we get rid of this car lane and put a bike lane in, we’ll eliminate those people’s need to take a car because they’ll now be riding a bike.’ Nowhere in this country has that happened. There’s no research that supports that theory.”
Tallmadge says that folks at NC DOT will have to use a different approach if they want to meet their goals.
“The governor has signed an executive order to achieve zero carbon emissions, and vehicle miles traveled [VMT] reduction is one of the strategies for getting there,” Tallmadge says. “In order to do that, the analyses that are being done for these projects can’t just assume that VMT is going to go up. If you’re always going to accommodate it, you’re not going to achieve those goals.”
Tallmadge was one of many advocates who spoke during this year’s city budget hearings in support of city staff hiring a Vision Zero coordinator. Vision Zero is a nationwide initiative to eliminate transportation-related deaths and serious injuries. The coordinator would work across city departments to ensure a shared vision for eliminating traffic deaths and improving public safety through infrastructure and policy changes. The Durham City Council included funding for the position when the budget was adopted in June. The coordinator is expected to start in December.
NC DOT has indicated that it would relinquish ownership of the roads to the City of Durham for no up-front cost, says Egan. NC DOT maintains roughly 797 lane miles (total miles multiplied by the number of lanes available) in Durham.
But the yearly maintenance would require more annual revenue from the city’s coffers, which would necessitate raising taxes. According to estimates from the city’s public works department, the costs of maintenance activities over the life cycle would range from $7,000 per lane mile for “rejuvenator” activities to $140,000 per lane mile for repaving. That’s on top of an already-existing $179 million backlog of maintenance requests for current city-owned roads. With the increasing possibility of raising taxes to facilitate other needs like worker compensation and additional staff, the city would have to decide if it has the capacity to own and maintain more roads and whether it is a high priority.
“Funding has not kept up with the level of need from [the city’s public works department],” Egan says. “If we’re struggling to keep up with the streets that we already own and maintain, is it the right way forward to take on additional maintenance responsibility for state-owned roadways?”
With funding at a premium, the transportation department tries to take advantage of opportunities to piggyback on other construction projects to meet their needs.
“Anytime a street is getting either torn up for a waterline project or resurfaced by the city’s public works department or NC DOT, it’s an opportunity for us to reconsider the roadway design,” Egan says.
Every year, the city’s transportation department requests a schedule of NC DOT’s planned resurfacing projects so it can research and submit potential redesigns. Road construction projects like these are what Egan calls a “blank slate,” and it’s one of the most cost-effective ways for the transportation department to adopt new design features like bike lanes or even changing a street from one-way to two-way, since the road will already have to be repainted. The city is currently under contract to analyze Mangum Street and Roxboro Street, one-way streets that flow through downtown.
“Each one of those projects has funding already allocated to put down new pavement markings,” Egan says. ”So if we do some of that concept development and community engagement around changes in design, we basically get all of the construction costs for free.”
The future of transit in Durham
Since the controversial light rail project failed to leave the station a few years ago, the city has been researching ways to bolster other types of transportation services by introducing concepts such as Bus Rapid Transit, which would give buses priority on strategic roadways throughout the city, reducing travel times. Future plans could also include a substation at the Village shopping center in East Durham, where bus ridership is higher than any other stop besides the downtown station.
“We did really extensive community engagement around the Holloway corridor and Fayetteville corridor,” says Egan. “We got a clear understanding of what riders were looking for, and now what they’ve told us is stop bringing us surveys and start delivering results that we can see on the ground.”
All the different approaches to transit are on the table moving forward, Egan says. Durham will have to rely on collaboration with the NC DOT and a strong process for community engagement to ensure all the various stakeholders are represented in the city’s future transportation network.
But it’s not as easy as adding bike lanes wherever residents may want them.
“It’s going to be a whole mix of different things,” Sandor says. “I look at the American Tobacco Trail as such a great project, and Durham’s got the beltline trail coming. Those are going to be your transformative projects that offer very significant improvements to moving the needle in providing people legitimate options to that very problem as we urbanize and get more crowded and congested.”
The City of Durham and NC DOT are also in the process of reimagining a section of the NC-147 freeway that runs through the heart of downtown. The federal government has made grant funding available to states and local municipalities through the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Program, an initiative that will improve connectivity “by removing, retrofitting, or mitigating highways or other transportation facilities that create barriers to community connectivity, including to mobility, access, or economic development,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation website. Folks in Durham have long cited the construction of NC-147 as the largest contributor to the dissolution of the city’s historic Hayti district back when the freeway was first built.
“The U.S. Department [of Transportation] is looking at the legacy of federally funded highways that were built by bulldozing historically Black and brown residential and commercial districts and the harm that those projects did to disadvantaged communities,” says Egan. “We have a tragic history in Durham of roadway projects that have impacted particularly African American residential and commercial communities. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past.”