TLR Q&A with Town Council Candidates


TLR Staff Report

The Local Reporter is aware of the the number of forums and questionnaires submitted to candidates. TLR posed one question to candidates in order to be respectful of their time.

Chapel Hill residents consistently identify management of traffic flow as the local government service most in need of improvement. What specific strategies would you support to alleviate traffic congestion within Chapel Hill?

Pam Hemminger: 
Chapel Hill residents consistently identify management of traffic flow as the local government service most in need of improvement. What specific strategies would you support to alleviate traffic congestion within Chapel Hill?

Our road infrastructure was not designed to handle all the growth from within the town combined with the cars coming from outside Chapel Hill that pass through our community each day.  Addressing these problems requires comprehensive transportation planning.

To help people get around more effectively, we are:

  • Working on a town-wide traffic model to inform decisions
  • Planning for transit expansion to give people more options and adding Bus Rapid Transit (North-South line first; looking at other lines for later)
  • Implementing priority projects in our Mobility & Connectivity Plan to increase bike/pedestrian infrastructure and improve connections to transit;
  • Integrating SMART technologies into our intersections for both monitoring and real time flow;
  • Exploring last mile options
  • Working with our partners to bring more regional transit options from all directions
  • Creating more local jobs in transit-supported, walkable areas to reduce commuters going out and coming into our community
  • Continuing to build on our Transportation Demand Program’s success (won best in the nation this past year) to get more people carpooling, riding transit and using non-car methods of getting to work
  • Reviewing crash statistics to see what places in our community have the highest rates and then to see what can be done to reduce those risks

Working together we can find ways to get people out of their cars, increase transit options and reduce traffic which also reduces green house gas emissions. Understanding true traffic implications before approving more intense development is a top priority. We have to look holistically in a corridor and town wide instead of just project by project in order to make the most informed decisions for our long-term future.

Josh Levenson:
Yes, but rush-hour traffic may be transformed into a bit of a good thing. I hope we never try to cram six-lane roads through the center of town. Instead of expanding downtown parking decks for convenient parking the way the current mayor and council have voted to approve, I plead that we start to move the other way, providing Bus Rapid Transit from park-and-rides around the perimeter of town that visitors can access every 5-10 minutes. Then providing free or cheap parking passes
to residents, as we gradually increase parking fees during peak hours. This appears to be one of our last hopes for making a walkable and bike-able green downtown which encourages public transit and raises funds, moderating car parking while still providing affordable convenient access for community members. This is also the most appropriate way to raise funds supporting a transition to safe separate bike lanes and public transportation while we tapper solo drivers unnecessarily filling our streets.

Jessica Anderson:
The answer for addressing the traffic congestion problem given most often at the Candidate forums is “we need to get people out of their cars”. While no one would argue that this is a worthy goal, we
don’t explain how that will happen. If reelected I will continue to advocate for the following:

* LOCAL TRANSIT. We must continue to build on our wonderful free bus system, which not only promotes environmental sustainability, but also equity. For the last decade routes have not kept up with growth and ridership has been flat. We need to invest our transit dollars in more frequent bus service along the routes people travel. In addition, our Council need to fill the gaps in the recently updated Town Pedestrian and Biking Plan with greenways, protected bike lanes and sidewalks. I am
thrilled that the North South Bus Rapid Transit project is moving ahead but we need to extend that route and plan more bus rapid transit on our major corridors based on current and projected traffic data.

* REGIONAL TRANSIT. We must plan for public transit to connect us to the rest of the Triangle. Much of Chapel Hill’s congestion is caused by commuters coming in or leaving the town so we must find ways to move people in and out of town in efficient and sustainable ways. I will advocate for Chapel Hill to play a stronger role in transit decisions in regional groups that make transit decisions that have such a huge impact on our town and our transit dollars.

* ENERGY EFFICIENCY AND COMBUSTION POLLUTION REDUCTION. We have purchased three electric busses and we must continue to electrify our fleet of busses and all town-owned vehicles. We must also continue to provide electric car charging stations and require new development
projects provide them on site.

* INFRASTRUCTURE. For the last decade, Chapel Hill promoted growth at greater densities and did so with little thought to road capacity or public transit.  For example, the Ephesus Fordham Mobility Study shows that 15-501 will be an even bigger traffic issue in a couple of years without even taking into account large proposed projects along the corridor.  I will continue to vote for policies that will ensure we have a transit solution before we approve new development permits.

Sue Hunter:
The best strategy for relieving traffic congestion is to make it easier for people to move between work, home and retail without cars. Our local government makes decisions about land use and transportation planning, and therefore has the ability to implement transit-oriented development, affordable housing and multi-modal infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians. Because our Town funds are limited, we must advocate for changes at the state level, such as how STI funds are calculated and allocated, and hold NCDOT accountable for their Complete Streets initiative, which requires that the state build in multi-modal options whenever expanding or improving a road. Chapel Hill residents have long advocated for improved bike and pedestrian connectivity. The availability of ebikes presents an alternative to cars that cold work for many people. Our Town Council must prioritize putting the infrastructure in place.

We’ve managed to keep traffic within Chapel Hill from growing significantly by investing in our fare-free transit system, which has the second largest ridership in the state and is the largest fare-free system in the country. We must continue to expand service to meet the needs of our growing population. We are putting our transit tax dollars to work, by adding new bus stop shelters and expanding bus service to 7 days a week next fall.

We have over 40,000 people commuting into Chapel Hill to work every day, and 15-20,000 commuting out of Chapel Hill for work. We need to focus on creating more housing and jobs in Chapel Hill to reduce commuter traffic. We must also work with Orange County as they start the
planning process for a regional transit solution with Durham and Wake. We have a significant amount of through traffic from Chatham County, and I support the Orange County Commissioners working in collaboration with Chatham to address this issue.

There is no magical fix to address traffic. We must work together with surrounding municipalities and within our own Town to put the necessary strategies in place, reduce our carbon emissions from transportation and create a more sustainable community for the future.

Tai Huynh:
The feeling of traffic in our town is created by two main bottlenecks: commuters who either drive to or out of town using major transit corridors such as I-40 and 15-501, and parents driving their kids to
school every morning. To address the first bottleneck, I will work with our regional partners to make our regional transit system more reliable, convenient, and efficient. For example, thousands of University and Town employees commute from outside of Chapel Hill. In office, I would advocate for giving these employees free GoPasses to incentivize them to take public transit to work instead of getting into a car and generating more traffic. I will also push for a best practice Bus Rapid Transit
with a dedicated bus lane, and traffic lights outfitted with sensors so that traffic across town is smooth. To address the bottleneck of parents driving their kids to school, I will work hard to make sure that Chapel Hill is a town of complete streets, that bike lanes are shielded from roads by street-side parking, and that there is a strong internal network of bike lanes and greenways. All of these measures will increase the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians so that schoolchildren can ride a bike or walk to school using the many safe and robust avenues built specifically for them to do so.

Additionally, cities across our nation have found that streetscaping and integration of tree canopy onto sidewalks and streets mitigate the feeling of traffic. On council, I will push for the integration of
greenspace into our development so that we maintain the green character of town, and have the necessary, reliable infrastructure to get from place to place.

Nancy Oates:
A few ways we can improve traffic flow:

  • Target bus service to commuters. Find out where they are coming from, where they are going, and at what hours. Our two biggest employers, UNC and UNC Health Care, have many employees who work nontraditional hours. We need to have public transportation that will be of use to them.
  • Be realistic that we are a suburban town still, and that people who live here will have at least one car per household, and likely two, as most families have two adults who work full time. Limiting parking is not going to motivate people to give up their cars. They will simply become more creative in where they park. For instance, UNC does not allow freshmen to have cars, but many freshmen do; they just get creative about where to park them.
  • Understand that many people neither live here nor work here but use Chapel Hill roads as cut-throughs between their home and work. We aren’t going to change that, but we can be mindful of that as we decide where to approve new development so as not to dump more cars on an already congested road that we can’t widen or reduce the number of cars already on it.
  • Looking too far into the future, saying that once driverless cars arrive, we won’t have traffic jams, is not useful for how we live now.
  • Work with the university to do a marketing campaign, perhaps employing gamification to encourage students to not have cars and to use Uber or public transit instead.

Michael Parker:
Traffic is a significant problem for Chapel Hill residents. In the past few biennial community surveys conducted by the Town, traffic and congestion has consistently been the issue that residents name as the most concerning/problematic.  While there are a number of causes of traffic, the most significant may be represented by the following: according to US Census data for 2017 compiled by Carolina Demography, every day, on average, almost 42,000 workers drive into Chapel Hill every work day (an increase of about 4,000 since 2013); approximately 14,000 drive out every day; and only about 6,600 live and work in Chapel Hill.  There is not data on how many people drive through Chapel Hill every day (e.g., going from northern Chatham to Durham or vice versa). Thus, it would appear that most of Chapel Hill’s traffic issues are due to commuters – people coming into and out of the Town rather than people driving within the Town.

In the short-term, there are no simple solutions to this problem. We have few, if any, opportunities for building entirely new roads. And studies have shown consistently that any gains made from widening roads are lost with a few years. Indeed, some experts assert that building roads causes traffic. We do need to ensure that new developments, retail or commercial, do not worsen problems, particularly on our most important and most congested corridors, US 15-501, Rte. 54, and Martin L. King Jr. Blvd., by ensuring that well-conceived, comprehensive Traffic Impact Analyses are performed and the appropriate mitigation measures put in place as projects are constructed.

In addition, we are in the process of developing a Town-wide traffic model, to be completed by the end of FY 2020. This model will have at least two major benefits. First, it should allow for more comprehensive, holistic, and rapid TIAs with the ability to test multiple scenarios and ascertain sensitivities, so that we can better assess the impacts of new development and test a variety of possible mitigation strategies. Second, and this will be new to the Town, it can be used to test a wide range of tactics for improving traffic flow on an ongoing basis, as well as understand the best ways of dealing with disruptions due to road construction and the like. When this model is completed and operational, we will be the first, if not only, municipality in North Carolina to have one.

Another generator of traffic, particularly in the morning rush hour, is parents driving their children to school, rather than their using the school bus (Chapel Hill Transit), walking, or bicycling. If the Town could work with the school system to change these behaviors, we could reduce traffic – and have healthier children.

We also need to continue to invest in our bicycle infrastructure and greenways. Our Mobility and Connectivity Plan has as a goal to achieve a 35% bicycling, walking, and transit commute combined mode share in Chapel Hill by 2025. Doing so will require continued investment in infrastructure and connectivity. In addition, I believe that the advent of E-bikes holds great opportunity for Chapel Hill as they can “flatten” the town and make our investments in bicycle infrastructure far more rewarding. We need to press forward with developing and E-bikeshare program in Chapel Hill, hopefully in collaboration with UNC.

Finally, the longer-term solution lies with getting people out of their cars by continuing to invest in CHT, including completing the North-South BRT, working toward a similar BRT that runs east-west, and developing regional solutions that start with connecting us to Durham, the place that generates the largest share of our commuter traffic, and expands over time – based on data – to connect with other areas in the Triangle and elsewhere. Such transit solutions will help to alleviate traffic and will also have significant environmental benefits by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As noted above, there are neither simple nor cheap solutions to our traffic problems. We must work on a number of fronts and be prepared to make strategic investments if we are to make progress.

Amy Ryan:
As a resident of south Chapel Hill, I’ve spent my share of time on Fordham Boulevard, waiting for the traffic to move near St. Thomas Moore and Manning Drive. And I’m not alone: the 2018 Community Satisfaction Survey identified traffic as residents’ #1 problem. We obviously need better strategies to deal with this issue. Here are some ideas I’d support:

  1. Adding bike and pedestrian infrastructure. One of my platforms is to build a “green network” of parks, greenways, and open space in town. The plan has great ecological benefits, but it also would let us provide a safe, dedicated bike and pedestrian network that would encourage more people to leave their cars at home.
  2. Continuing strong support of our successful fare-free bus system. As we grow, we’ll have more people on the move. Making sure we support and improve our bus system will give our residents and commuters viable options for getting where they need to go without their cars.
  3. Adding density on transit corridors. We need to leverage our investment in our bus system by making sure that when we add density, we’re doing so in places convenient to the major bus routes.
  4. Making a traffic “hotspot” map part of our land use ordinance rewrite. I’d like to have the town identify areas that already experience significant traffic distress and set a policy that would require a TIA for any development project in those areas. Staff and developers would also be required to address traffic concerns specifically when they bring projects in that area for review.
  5. Working with the schools to get kids out of cars. During morning rush hour and midafternoon, substantial traffic is caused by parents driving their children to and from school.  While some of this is unavoidable, I’d like to work with our parents, school district, and PTAs to build a culture in town that encourages children who can walk or bike to school to do just that—it’s better for their health, better for our environment, and better for traffic flow.
  6. Improving our traffic impact analysis (TIA) process. First, we can do a better job by setting the areas to be studied more broadly, to make sure we’re getting the whole picture of traffic impacts. (There’s some good news on this front – see number 7!)Second, we need to improve the data that advisory boards and Council receive. I’ve seen summary reports that say the “average level of service” for an intersection is fine, only to dig deeper and find that one of the left turns would become virtually impossible. We need to make sure that details like this are identified and called out by staff so they can be addressed before Council grants a development approval.
  1. The good news. I’m happy to say that the town has moved ahead with acquiring comprehensive traffic modeling software. This will let us see impacts not only in the immediate area of a new development, but in adjacent areas also, and will allow us to better evaluate the cumulative impacts of proposed development so we can make sure our road infrastructure can support it.

Renuka Soll:
There is congestion on major arterial roads throughout town during certain times of the day and many intersections have received a Level of Service rating of D or below. I avoid certain roads in the early morning, evenings, and when school lets out because I could get stuck in local traffic for a long time. In addition to investing in expanded and improved public regional transit, we should perform town-wide traffic modeling studies to project the impact of proposed new development, make approval of new development contingent on the availability of adequate transportation infrastructure to serve the new development, and create safe bike lanes and connect our bicycle and pedestrian paths to enable people to get around town without having to use their cars. The town has just allocated funds toward building the town-wide computer-based traffic model, which is an excellent first step.

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3 Comments on "TLR Q&A with Town Council Candidates"

  1. Traffic is a big issue. So slow down building multi-story luxury apartments that generate peak hour traffic. Everywhere I look I see huge in-your-face apartments and condos being built.

  2. I totally agree with John Schmidt but would go further: freeze and if possible, roll back, any construction of residential and commercial building in the town until the traffic congestion is dealt with! It was absolutely negligent for the Town Council – over the past few years – to put the cart before the horse and approve major construction without first planning for the increased traffic…and not just planning – for not initiating necessary changes in roads before the congestion resulting from over-building took place. I believe that it will now be inevitable for two-lane roads in each direction to be turned into three-lane roads and, quite possibly, for one-lane roads – like Estes Drive – to be widened to two lanes in each direction to avoid total gridlock. The latter is a prime example of extremely poor planning.

  3. The flow of traffic around the schools is what needs to be addressed. Where this is successful, there are lanes for waiting cars and proceedures for less time waiting. For instance, having kids wait just inside the door as they are being dropped off might involve supervision, but reduces the car waiting with the engine running for school to start. Pick up needs to involve lanes for cars to wait with their engines off. To refuse to address real situations by suggesting children ride their bikes in the rain while balancing a violin, computer, bookbag, and lunch is just unrealistic and unbelievable what we are asking of that generation. Middle schoolers and High Schoolers use their phones so much, why not an app to pick them up in a public transit van on an as needed basis? They could get to their dentist appointments, dance classes, grandmas, afterschool activities all the while cutting down on the car going from a parents work to school, to activity, to home and also give the American worker more time on the job. Much congestion could be helped by lengthing turning lanes, extending Sage Rd. widening to include scarlett Dr. and Legion Rd. so this outer belt could be used, addressing the planned huge growth of the Pittsboro area to get to i-40 without going through 15/501, planning an outer-belt of Chapel Hill/Durham. Why isn’t there a right turn lane going from Ephesus Church Rd. to 15/501? Why also is there not a right turn lane going from Trader Joe’s area to 15/501? There could have been an extra lane from the Trader Joes’s stoplight down 15/501 to the Willow drive stoplight or even further to Estes Drive so that local and traffic going straight through could be accomodated?

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