Disrespect, thy name is NCDOT.
US 15-501 is one of the major gateways into Chapel Hill. At the north end of town, it crosses I-40 and connects with Durham, forming the famous “tobacco road” that connects the dueling universities and college basketball powers at Duke and UNC.
As a major gateway, there have been a number of studies evaluating the corridor, all the way back to 1995. More recently, in 2020 the regional transportation planning organization — the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization (DCHC MPO) — worked with local governments and NCDOT to develop a multimodal corridor transportation plan that sought to integrate the communities goals’ for land use and all types of transportation (bikes, buses, and pedestrians, as well as cars). The proposed conceptual design includes accommodations for bicycle and pedestrian access throughout the corridor, as well as facilities for buses. This was a true team effort that engaged the NCDOT, local governments, and the community.
So, do you think this would serve as the basis for NCDOT’s own planning for the road’s future?
Late on Friday June 2, Chapel Hill town staff sent a memo to Chapel Hill Town Council letting them know about major changes being proposed to US 15-501. Here’s a copy of this memo.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Town staff “learned” that NCDOT was preparing an “Express Design” for US 15-501 around I-40. Pay particular attention to the use of the word “learned.” The clear implication is that NCDOT had no intention of involving the Town of Chapel Hill in the design process, but that someone let it slip. In response, on May 30 — that’s this week! — NCDOT and the Town met and NCDOT first shared their design documents with the town.
And hoo boy, those designs, they’re something. We’ll get into that later. But here’s the most astounding part. The Town has UNTIL JUNE 9 to provide comments on the proposed design.
THAT’S ONE WEEK.
One week to evaluate the most significant changes to the Town’s most significant gateway entrance since I-40 was built in the 1980s.
ONE WEEK to evaluate and comment on the design for a $100+ million project that will drive the land use for Chapel Hill and Durham for the next 50 years!
Now, here’s what NCDOT will say: It’s a quick design that is intended to prepare cost estimates for the project, which are needed for the state long-range transportation funding program. Nothing is set in stone, and modifications can be made. There’s a lot more that will need to be done. But that’s not entirely fair. This design is being used to prepare the cost estimates, and to evaluate traffic impacts, and to determine the safety benefits, all factors that go into the competitive scoring process that is used to decide which projects get funded, and which don’t get funded. If the project gets funded, it’s going to be funded based on the elements that the Town saw for the first time on Tuesday. There will not be an opportunity for significant redesign. What you see here is what NCDOT will ultimately build, more or less.
It’s disrespectful and offensive, not only to the Town staff who have to react on quick notice, but also to Chapel Hill residents, who are having this proposal thrust upon them without even an effort at pretending to gather input.
So, with that context, let’s take a look at the design, which Town staff, in their memorandum to Council, helpfully included in part. (NCDOT has not released any materials to the public.)
It’s a steaming hot mess. Let us count the ways it disregards the Town’s goals:
- It includes a new road that connects to Eastowne Drive, and goes right through the “Northern 20” heritage area that Council has expressed a desire to protect in the discussions with UNC Eastowne. (Want to guess whether UNC Health Care, and not the Town, has been privy to NCDOT’s plans?)
- The DCHC study from 2020 recommended an extension of Danzinger Drive, which runs west from Mt. Moriah Road and crosses over into Chapel Hill just north of Old Durham Road. The road is intended to connect residential development in Chapel Hill (some of which has recently been proposed) with the commercial development across the highway in Durham. The NCDOT proposal includes no such connection.
- The DCHC study made very clear that multimodal connections through this area are a must, and recommended bicycle and pedestrian crossings both north of US 15-501 (near Eastowne, but outside the heritage area), and along the Danzinger Drive extension. NCDOT’s proposal contains no such bicycle and pedestrian accommodations. According to Town staff, “the project has bike and pedestrian facilities crossing on- and off-ramps to I- 40.” Take a look at this drawing below — bicyclists and pedestrians are expected to cross free-flowing traffic heading off of I-40 into Eastowne, and heading onto I-40 from 15-501 and the New Hope Commons shopping center. That’s an incredibly ludicrous and dangerous concept that is antithetical to NCDOT’s adopted “Complete Streets” policy. Have you ever crossed a free-flowing intersection like that on foot? Probably not by choice, because it’s unsafe and unpleasant. But that’s what NCDOT thinks is just fine.
- The design includes no transit facilities whatsoever — no bus lanes, no bus stops, nothing — within the project boundaries. That is a complete departure from the recommendations developed in the 2020 DCHC study.
Can NCDOT do this? Sure they can. They‘ve done it before and they’ll keep doing it. It’s their road, and the public engagement that NCDOT does and that is required is a mere pittance compared to the impact that the project will have, both during construction and on the future of Chapel Hill. (Remember the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project? There were countless complaints that the dozens of meetings that were held were inadequate. But the public engagement on that project was exponentially greater than the public engagement that took place on any four NCDOT roadway projects combined.)
The only thing that will have an impact is public opposition. We expect the Town Council will be expressing its displeasure with these plans, and the way in which the Town was informed. We think it’s helpful if citizens do the same.
Here are some ways you can help:
Email NCDOT officials
Because the public has been kept in the dark, we have no idea who is involved. But we can address the local NCDOT leadership — in NCDOT Division 5, which includes Durham County, that includes
- Division Engineer Brandon Jones (email@example.com)
- District Engineer John Sandor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Division Project Development Engineer Ben Upshaw (email@example.com).
In NCDOT Division 7, which includes Orange County, that includes:
- Division Engineer Wright Archer III (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- District Engineer Chuck Edwards (email@example.com)
- Division Project Delivery Engineer Pat Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org).
They’ll be sure to pass it on to the correct parties.
In both cases, make sure to copy DCHC MPO’s executive director, Doug Plachcinski, email@example.com, and the DCHC MPO Executive Board chair Jenn Weaver, Mayor of Hillsborough, Jenn.Weaver@hillsboroughnc.gov.
What do I say?
Something along the lines of “don’t rush to develop a design that completely disregards the community’s priorities and provides no opportunities for anyone outside of NCDOT to be involved in any substantive way.”
Email Chapel Hill Town Council
Here’s the address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Let them know you are just as upset as Town staff and demand that NCDOT staff attend a Council meeting in person to discuss how this project got so far along without any effort to reach out to the people who will be affected.
Attend, write a note, or give public comment at the next meeting of the DCHC MPO Board.
The MPO has to approve all of NCDOT’s projects, and consists of local elected officials, so they’ll be sure to be annoyed. Conveniently for NCDOT, the next meeting is not scheduled until June 14, after the June 9 deadline imposed by NCDOT, but NCDOT staff will be there to hear the complaints. You can also provide public comment remotely. We’ll provide more information about that as the date draws near.
It’s our town. It would be great if we had a chance to provide input on the design for our roads.
Melody Kramer, Geoff Green and Martin Johnson contributed to this post.