Last week, Triangle Blog Blog—a progressive civics blog focused on Chapel Hill and Carrboro, covering housing, transportation, education, and historical context—reported on a North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) plan to redesign the 15-501 corridor. The plan is not in line with what many community stakeholders had envisioned. We spoke with one of TBB’s writers and board members, Martin Johnson, about the report.

INDY: What’s different about NCDOT’s proposed plan for the 15-501 corridor from the local study and local proposals?

In 2020, the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, which sets transportation priorities for our region and includes representatives from area municipalities and the NCDOT, did a 15-501 corridor study. In the study, they identified a need for increased vehicle capacity across I-40. But they also saw a need to provide connections across I-40 for people on bus, foot, and bike, to connect the developments on either side of the proverbial river. 

Context matters here: Chapel Hill is effectively building a second downtown in the Blue Hill area, and Durham is also adding more buildings on the other side of I-40. There’s a lot of housing and businesses in this relatively compact area, and safe bike and pedestrian infrastructure would make a big difference. For example, you can bike from Home Depot on Mount Moriah Road in Durham to the Chapel Hill Whole Foods in 20 minutes! It’s not very safe right now, but that could change if we made the right investments. And, more frequent and reliable bus service on 15-501 would be transformative, helping us make up for the opportunity lost when the Durham-Orange Light Rail plans fell apart in 2019. (We’re getting all the development people expected, just none of the transit). 

The DCHC study tried to seriously address the need for safe and convenient access across I-40 and along the corridor for all modes. Although they included a new interchange design (Diverging Diamond Interchange, or DDI) like the one NCDOT includes in its Express Design, it also included dedicated bus facilities along stretches, and provided safe and separated bicycle and pedestrian connections. 

By contrast, the NCDOT proposal completely ignores transit through the corridor. The bicycle and pedestrian paths that it includes are ludicrous. On the Chapel Hill side, the bicycle and pedestrian path is basically a wide sidewalk next to a freeway interchange. It requires people to cross a very busy interstate on-ramp and interstate off-ramp without any sort of traffic signal. That’s madness! (Think of trying to cross in front of the off- and on-ramps from I-40 on NC 751 near SouthPoint, but imagine there were no traffic lights to stop traffic leaving or entering the highway.) 

Further on, this sidewalk passes through the existing shopping centers and crosses multiple driveways, each of which will be busy with cars and difficult to cross. While cars on US 15-501 will have a straight shot across I-40 and will be able to go all the way to Duke University without stopping, bikes will have to travel a meandering route, cross multiple busy roads and driveways (nine at least, by our count), and make several difficult crossings.

DCHC’s 15-501 study also includes an extension of Durham’s Danziger Drive, which is south of US 15-501 and west of I-40, to connect to the Chapel Hill side, and would allow for a more bike- and ped-friendly interstate crossing. NCDOT’s proposal does not include that, and so anyone who wants to use a bike lane to cross the highway will need to go north across US 15-501.

INDY: NC DOT’s plan doesn’t do much to reduce car dependency, which is increasingly a goal for local residents and officials in the Triangle. Why is there such a disconnect?

NCDOT’s mission has always been to address vehicular congestion, and while the secretary and the governor’s team have taken some small steps to better accommodate people who are not driving by improving NCDOT’s “Complete Streets” program, bicycle and pedestrian facilities are still very much an afterthought. (As they are for the majority in the state legislature, to be fair.) 

NCDOT has established an Integrated Mobility Division which advises the different NCDOT engineers who actually plan roads, but there’s only a few people in the IMD and hundreds of projects across the state, and they simply don’t have the capacity to ensure that these plans are well-thought-out.

INDY: Chapel Hill town officials have until June 9 to review NC DOT’s plan before it begins moving forward. Is there a chance for more debate after that?

Yes and no. These plans are being designed to prepare a cost estimate for the US 15-501 project, and those need to be completed by the end of the month to enter NCDOT’s biennial funding prioritization program. Projects are evaluated based on their cost-benefit ratio with respect to how it will help automobile traffic, so NCDOT certainly doesn’t want to increase the cost of the project by including decent bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Nevertheless, if the project scores well and is funded by NCDOT, our understanding is that these designs are basically thrown out and new plans will be prepared by other NCDOT engineers or consultants. 

However, by that stage, the project budget will be set. This amount of money available to the project will be based on the plans with this wide sidewalk, and nothing else to support pedestrians, bicyclists or transit. The budget will include money for all the roads and roundabouts and bridges that support cars, but it won’t include any money for decent bikeways or any transit facilities. 

And so, if the project gets funded, NCDOT will go ahead and prepare new designs. They won’t eliminate any of the road lanes and the road bridges that are integral to the project’s score, and so there won’t be any money in the budget to support decent sidewalks or bicycle facilities that don’t suck. At the end of the day, we’ll be lucky to even get the terrible sidewalk, because that’ll probably be one of the first things to go if NCDOT’s costs are higher than anticipated.

The only other option will be for the Town of Chapel Hill and the City of Durham to chip in, or to allocate some of their scarce federal transportation dollars to make up for NCDOT dropping the ball. That’s similar to what the City of Durham did when it built the American Tobacco Trail bridge over I-40. That project required Durham to allocate several years of the limited federal transportation funding to a single project, while ignoring Durham’s other major transportation needs. That’s going to be a heavy lift for the communities, given that it is NCDOT projects (primarily I-40) that split this area in the first place.

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