The Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization is the body that coordinates regional transportation planning. Most of its members are appointed by local governments in Orange, Durham, and Chatham Counties, but there are also representatives from NCDOT. The MPO is currently working on its new long-range transportation plan, the 2050 Metropolitan Transportation Plan. Unfortunately, the three scenarios that were developed to guide the final plan spend far too much money on highway spending and are inconsistent with our regional priorities, which include placing an emphasis on transit and bicycle transportation and serious efforts to address climate change. During the board’s meeting today to discuss the three alternatives, I delivered the following statement, although I did condense for time:

Good morning, my name is Geoff Green and I’m a resident of Chapel Hill. I’m speaking on my own behalf. I am urging the MPO Board to ensure that the 2050 Metropolitan Transportation Plan reflects the values professed by the local jurisdictions that make up this organization, that multimodal investment is critical and that climate change is a threat. For example, the Town of Chapel Hill has passed a resolution declaring a “climate emergency” which requires action “at emergency speed.” Every elected official sitting here believes, I think, that climate change is real, and that business-as-usual is no longer acceptable.

The Canadian city planner Brent Toderian has said that city leaders need to “start budgeting & approving things that support your vision. Stop budgeting & approving things that don’t.” It’s not enough to do the right things; we also need to stop doing the wrong things. Each alternative being presented for the 2050 MTP includes a lot of wrong things. Each alternative includes billions of dollars of highway widening and new highway construction. In each alternative, Interstate 40 is widened and an additional set of managed lanes are constructed. In each alternative, a quarter of a billion dollars is spent adding new lanes to NC 147.  In each alternative, about $200 million is spent turning 15-501 into a freeway. I appreciate that the Shared Leadership alternative does eliminate some highway projects that would induce sprawl, and also removes the freeway through downtown Durham, but it includes massive spending on highway projects like the ones I just listed. And these all are the wrong things. Take the Interstate 40 and NC 147 managed lane projects as an example. These projects cut the legs out from the commuter rail project, the region’s major non-highway investment. The primary goal of the commuter rail project is to provide a fast and reliable trip between Durham, RTP, and Raleigh that isn’t subject to traffic delays. The primary goal of managed lanes is exactly the same – to provide a fast and reliable trip between Durham, RTP and Raleigh by putting a price on highway capacity to manage its use. Commuter rail may be the right thing, but we shouldn’t do the wrong thing by funneling a billion dollars into its competitor.

If this highway expansion plans come to fruition, it Is hard to imagine how the local jurisdictions will accomplish any of their goals related to climate change.

Let me be clear, as a former member of regional planning staff who worked on the 2045 MTP, I have no qualms with anything that staff has done. Staff works for a board that approved two prior MTPs which featured massive highway investments. Moreover, developing alternatives that modify these climate-busting projects would be in direct conflict with NCDOT’s own plans and perhaps with our CAMPO neighbors who are partners in the development of the MTP. I fully realize that widening core highways like I-40 is a state priority. This preference is written into the STI law. Any call for change won’t be well received by some powerful people. It falls to each of you, the officials elected to public office and appointed by your elected colleagues to this board, to make these hard calls and provide this leadership.

The 2050 MTP should rethink the wisdom of these big-ticket highway investments. Beyond that, it should identify, list, and price out critical investments in regional transportation mobility such as the triangle bikeway and transit investments, the same way that is done with highway projects, and not simply assume a bucket of money that will be spent somehow. Moreover, because we can see the effects of climate change every day, the 2050 MTP should not assume that in 30 years we will still be governed by the current STI rubric that funnels most money into highway projects. Instead, we should create a positive plan that reflects our vision and assumes our actions beginning in 10 and 20 years, after the end of the current STIP, will meet the demands of the time.

Given the deadline, it may be tough to get this all done. But we have to start so this MTP or, if necessary, the 2055 MTP really incorporates the MPO’s goals and does not simply pair massive expansion in our roadway network with what are, by comparison, marginal transit and bicycle investments.

It’s time to meet the moment. Each jurisdiction sitting here that has adopted a climate action plan recognizes that each jurisdiction is limited in what it can do alone. But on the regional level, you can do so much more. You are not just a rubber stamp for policies developed by others. You serve on a body established under federal law that is given the responsibility to manage the planning and development of our region’s transportation system. Most of you, perhaps each of you, campaigned on climate change and the need for a transportation system that better reflects the values we share in Durham, Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, and throughout Durham, Orange, and Chatham counties. An MTP that fully aligns with our values is an important step that can make a difference.

Thank you.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Geoff Green, AICP lives in Chapel Hill. In his day job he's a practicing urban planner; in his spare time he rides his electric bike around town and advocates for improved facilities so that everyone can...

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