NCDOT tries to allay fears over 15-501 plan in response to town

GOVERNMENT

By Gregory DL Morris
Correspondent

CHAPEL HILL — The state transportation authority says a controversial highway project design is an “intermediate step” in a response to a strongly-worded letter from Chapel Hill’s mayor.

Mayor Pam Hemminger’s letter, addressed to NCDOT Board chairman Michael Fox, expressed “strong opposition to the express design concept for project U-6067 – the proposed major highway project to convert U.S. Hwy. 15-501 to a freeway from the I-40 interchange to Garrett Road in Durham.”

The major contention was that the proposed NCDOT plan disregarded the transit, pedestrian and bicycle focus of the planning that the town and other parties have been developing for years.

Hemminger also stressed the town’s “deep concerns about the expedited process being used to move this significant project forward,” noting that the town had been given “just one week to evaluate and comment on this plan.”

The response from NCDOT Division Five Engineer Brandon Jones on Friday attempted to allay Hemminger’s concerns. Jones wrote that the NCDOT proposal was preliminary, just the start of a multi-year process, and that the detailed planning would incorporate the multi-modal approach the town seeks.

In her letter to Fox, Hemminger specified that “since 2018, the Durham Chapel Hill Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization has been working together to coordinate land use and transportation planning in this area. As presented, the redesign of the US 15-501/I- 40 interchange to a diverging diamond and construction of a new road between New Hope Commons in Durham and Eastowne Drive in Chapel Hill are at odds with the plans and goals that have been developed. Furthermore, the proposal does not reflect input given on this plan by the MPO previously.”

Hemminger stated the town’s chief concerns are the project does not align with the MPO’s goals, including reduced car dependency and more multimodal travel options, nor the town’s future land use map’s calls for “activated street frontages and walkable development,” or transit accommodations along 15-501 described in Orange County’s current transit plan, or the draft Durham County transit plan’s intent to study bus rapid transit in the corridor.

The mayor also expressed concerns that the NCDOT plan includes  northern quadrant road through a state natural heritage area and “does not take into account the town’s traffic patterns [so] would bring significant traffic onto Eastowne Drive with no plan for improvements or mitigations for the residential neighborhoods and local streets nearby.”

Beyond the physical elements of the NCDOT plan, the mayor was troubled by what she saw as a hasty and peremptory process. Hemminger wrote, “The project was only presented to local jurisdiction staff on May 30, with a deadline of June 9 to submit comments….Previous experiences with NCDOT indicate that they will not be willing to change the scope once the project is funded …because it will change the cost and require reprioritization. Local residents and landowners, including UNC Health, were not informed of this project and were unable to adequately plan around the proposed changes to the interchange.”

Ultimately Hemminger’s letter requested the NCDOT pause the process and meet with all the parties involved.

Jones’ response explained the the project was funded in the State Transportation Improvement program since the 2018-2027 planning cycle. However, rising costs for projects across the state nudged U-6067 into “uncommitted status,” meaning it must compete in the next prioritization process for development 2026-2035 improvement plan.

Jones noted express designs are used as an “intermediate step” in a proposed project’s development and “does not dictate what ultimately gets built.”

“It is important for us to complete the express design process by the end of June to prepare for scoring the project,” in the next round of funding prioritization,” Jones wrote. “I understand the confusion that goes along with so many different steps in the long life of a complicated project such as U-6067, and the frustration with the short time frame to respond to the express design concept in prioritization.”

Jones’ letter said the department plans to work with Chapel Hill, Durham and the MPO to “assure this corridor addresses the needs for all modes of transportation.”

Addressing Hemminger’s environmental concerns, Jones wrote  the express designs does not circumvent the requirement for the project to undergo National Environmental Policy Act or State Environmental Policy Act environmental analysis when it reaches the development phase, adding the project will have to undergo an environmental design process which will include “significant coordination with stakeholders and public involvement.”

Jones added that “the future project development phase of U-6067 will be the platform to discuss the specific needs of the corridor for bicycles, pedestrians, transit, and vehicular traffic.”

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