Town Council Talks Franklin St. and Funding in Work Session

GOVERNMENT

By James Kiefer

The Chapel Hill Town Council discussed potential improvements to Franklin Street and reviewed community feedback regarding incoming federal funds during a work session Wednesday evening. 

The night also marked the return of mayor Pam Hemminger, who has been recovering after contracting COVID-19 in January. Despite her presence at the meeting, the mayor pro tem still led the evening’s agenda.

Where the paint hits the road 

Stegman kicked off the work session agenda on a somber note, noting a recent uptick in motor vehicle incidents involving pedestrians and cyclists, including 16 people who were struck by drivers in Town crosswalks in 2021. “We’re really in a crisis around safety in our streets,” she said. 

Downtown special projects manager Sarah Poulton gave an overview of maintenance work on a stretch of West Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. She explained that resurfacing — a process that entails removing the top layer of asphalt, leveling the remaining ground, and adding a new layer of asphalt — is required on main streets every eight to 10 years.  

Poulton added that the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) owns that segment of road and will be performing the resurfacing. She further said NCDOT can also repaint the street in a “way that better meets the community’s needs and desires.” 

Resurfacing by NCDOT is scheduled to occur between May and August 2022. The Town reserves the option to change the traffic paint at any time, and the resurfacing does not inhibit the council from taking over maintenance of West Franklin Street in the future, should it choose to do so. 

Bergen Watterson, the Town’s transportation planning manager, explained that the Town has two options for traffic paint restriping: one with traffic-running bike lanes and another with curb-running bike lanes, the latter of which separates cyclists from moving vehicles on the street level, but would also decrease on-street parking. 

Councilperson Amy Ryan asked Town staff if there were any recommendations from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) on urban street design. Scott Sallade, an engineer with Ramey Kemp Associates, responded that designs are more in the preliminary stages, but reviewing NACTO guidelines remains an option. 

“I just want to make sure that as we’re thinking about all this that we’re thinking in an urban context,” she said. [That] we’re thinking really [about] a functional, spatial design and safety. So I would not like to see huge 300-foot sightlines [on] Franklin Street, I don’t think that’s going to make anything safer for us.”

Both staff and council members remarked that widening sightlines along streets tends make motorists think they can drive faster.

As an alternative, council member Tai Huynh inquired about the potential for adding a physical barrier to improve safety if the Town chooses a curb-running lane design. Staff said this could be done, but that NCDOT tends to be more conservative in its design choices and the Town would have to seek approval from the agency. 

Councilperson Michael Parker said he sees two major challenges: sight triangles — the area around an intersection that must afford unobstructed views — impact parking and the loss of existing parking spots downtown. Stegman later said that this is a time for Chapel Hill to experiment with traffic solutions and make downtown less car-centric. 

“We want it to be a place where bikers, pedestrians, families all want to go and spend time, and I think the less car-ish it feels the more we’re going to get there,” she said. “So this is an opportunity to try that.”

Stegman also said losing some parking spaces is acceptable since it seems that patrons downtown don’t mind walking from a parking lot to a storefront. 

Cash on hand

Following the discussion of road maintenance was an update on the Town’s engagement approach for prioritizing how to spend monies awarded to Chapel Hill by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). 

The legislation has earmarked over $10 million to the Town, half of which arrived in May 2021. Poulton shared with the council that further guidance had been handed down from the federal government clarifying some issues on how the funds can be spent. 

She also shared feedback from community members on spending priorities for the ARPA funds. The public ranked “support public health” the most important spending priority, followed in order of importance by “address negative economic impact of pandemic,” “replace Town revenue lost in the pandemic” and “invest in water and sewer infrastructure.” 

Other possible avenues proposed by residents included supporting mental health improvement efforts, supporting local businesses, offering career development and expanding affordable housing. 

With respect to replacing Town revenue, business management director Amy Oland said federal guidance states the Town can make a one-time allocation of $10 million instead of calculating revenue loss due to the pandemic over the next four years.

Many council members said that the group of residents who participated in the survey lacked demographic diversity, as over 70% of respondents were white. Councilperson Paris Miller-Foushee said the money should be given to transformative projects and said she would like to see ideas from stakeholders in marginalized communities about how they would use the money. 

She also said that she does not consider the Town’s existing advisory boards an appropriate next step for helping prioritize funds, citing the boards’ lack of diversity. 

Councilperson Adam Searing echoed that sentiment. 

“I wouldn’t want to give out this money piecemeal,” he said. “It’s really an opportunity to recover [from the pandemic.]”

Ryan also said transformative endeavors should be prioritized, but some of the funding should go toward communities that were hit hardest by COVID-19. Councilperson Jessica Anderson added the council uses a recovery-focused lens to make sure citizens are also getting the “bigger picture of where the council wants to go.”

She also said it should address issues now that would cost more if handled later. 

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