Area transportation planning as a TIP-ing point: Transportation authority priorities are safety, improving transit and reducing traffic

GOVERNMENT

By Gregory DL Morris
Correspondent

The agency in charge of coordinating area transportation projects is looking for public input on its new plan before the end of the month.

The Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, the authority responsible for transportation projects in coordination with state and federal programs, needs public input by July 26 on its fiscal years 2024-33 Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP).

Policy differences between local and state transportation priorities have come to a head recently, making public comment on the current TIP particularly important. The MPO’s jurisdiction includes all of Durham County; Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough in Orange County; as well as Chatham County.

In June there was a sharp exchange between Chapel Hill mayor Pam Hemminger and the state Department of Transportation. The mayor was critical of a state plan to expand U.S. 15-501 into a freeway from Chapel Hill to the intersection with Interstate 40 in Durham.

Hemminger particularly decried how the state’s plan for 15-501 seemed to ignore the long-developed plans by the town and MPO for the same corridor with the focus on multi-modal transportation including public transit, pedestrian and bicycle trails, and greenways. The NCDOT plan focused on building more highway lanes, including a new road through a natural heritage area.

“There are hundreds of projects in the TIP,” said Colleen McGue, planning manager for the MPO, “Which is our short-range plan covering the next 10 years.”

McGue explained that in transportation planning, projects often take several years to be studied for a preliminary design, then another several years for detailed design, funding authorization, permitting and acquiring right-of-way, all before construction can even begin. A decade is a relatively short term in transportation planning.. There is a longer-term regional metropolitan transportation plan that stretches for 25 years.

“There is a growing emphasis on equity, environmental justice, and resilience in the transportation system,” McGue said. “We have taken a strong stance in the last MTP that there will be no road-widening projects, and we want NCDOT to stand with us on that. Our board’s vision is more transit and more bike and pedestrian trails.”

In recent decades, national and regional studies have evidenced the best way to improve safety and reduce traffic is to provide multiple alternatives, including transit.

A prime example of the holistic, multi-modal approach, McGue noted, is the Transportation Management Program for the seven-county Triangle area that is part of the current TIP. It aims to reduce commuter reliance on single-occupancy vehicles by encouraging healthier, much lower cost, greener, and sustainable alternative options such as carpool, vanpool, public transit, biking, walking, teleworking, and flexible work weeks.

McGue noted a few specific programs of particular interest in the TIP:

  • “Morgan Creek Greenway. These projects are an example of how Carrboro and Chapel Hill worked together on a greenway project so that it would span multiple jurisdictions without being cut off at one boundary line or the other. [BO-2415 & EL-4828A]
  • “R. Kelly Bryant Bridge Trail. This project won a federal community grant earlier in the year. [EB-5720]
  • “Homestead Road. This project is currently about to enter construction. [U-4726IK]
  • “GoTriangle Access Improvements. This project was chosen through last year’s call for projects and awarded funds. It took forever to get this one added, but finally made it on. This one was lucky over the other projects that are backlogged on the old FY20-29 TIP [TL-0018].”

McGue stressed the importance of public input.

“We got a lot of comments regarding the 15-501 plans,” she said. “I do believe those influenced the state’s thinking. The state takes those seriously, and so do we. If the projects we want differ from the state plans, we can request a TIP amendment. Changes get harder the farther advanced a project becomes, so again, public input is important as early in the process as possible.”

Underscoring that point, Joshua Mayo, transportation planner for the Town of Chapel Hill, noted that TIPs are usually updated every four years, but because the pandemic and funding challenges at NCDOT disrupted the previous cycle, the current TIP will be updated again in two years.

“There is not much new in the current TIP,” Mayo said, “most new projects, especially the North-South Bus Rapid Transit route, will be added to the 2026-35 TIP. We’re working on getting those submitted now, so again, public input is particularly important now and over the next couple of years.”

Residents and other stakeholders can review the FY 2024-2033 TIP on the planning organization’s website and provide comments here, or by email, or by calling (919) 503-4119 no later than July 26.

Comments can be made in person or virtually directly to the MPO board at the public hearing Wednesday, August 9, at 9 a.m.  Requests to speak at the hearing should by email or by calling (919) 503-4119. The board meeting livestream will also be available for viewing on the DCHC MPO YouTube.

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