Two-Way Traffic May Return to Estes Drive This Winter

The need to move the utility poles and the attached cables is part of what has kept traffic on Estes Drive one-way for so long. Photo by Michelle Cassell.


By Fraser Sherman

The one-way stretch of Estes Drive could be back to normal two-way traffic before spring, according to Chapel Hill Transportation Planning Manager Bergen Watterson.  However, that will take “perfect weather, no more utility delays, smooth sailing.”

Construction on Estes, which includes new crosswalks, bike lanes and pedestrian paths, began early in 2022, limiting part of the busy road to one-way traffic. The city originally hoped to finish the work in the summer of 2023. Current projections on Chapel Hill’s website are for work to wrap up in the coming winter months, either late 2023 or early 2024.

Watterson told The Local Reporter that the town is talking with the contractor. “I think we’ve got it all worked out. I’m hoping that continues to be the case.” In the best outcome, the project would wrap up in December but there’s no guarantee: “There are so many contingencies with construction projects – if it rains a lot it might be more delayed. Cold is also a factor because the contractor can’t lay asphalt if the temperature drops too low.”

Watterson said Estes is the most difficult kind of urban road-widening project because it affects one of the city’s major traffic routes: “Out in the middle of wherever, we could have kept it open, but there’s pressure on all of that road” due to the traffic and the need to relocate power lines, gas line and other utilities. Restricting traffic to one lane despite the inconvenience to drivers has been the best option.

“The vast majority of the delays have been due to utility relocations,” Watterson added, because Chapel Hill doesn’t have the authority to impose deadlines on the town’s utilities. “When it comes down to it, you can’t force them to do it. It’s kind of on their schedule and on a project like this it’s so complex.”

Watterson said the complexity comes from having a “spaghetti bowl of utilities” where what one player does affects multiple others. For example, utilities with wires strung from Duke Energy’s power poles can’t relocate until Duke Energy relocates the poles. On a given section of road, relocating the poles has to wait until grading the road is done. A delay in grading causes chain-reaction delays in the rest of the work.

Another example, Watterson said, took place when Chapel Hill wanted to replace a section of old water line, bringing it up to a higher standard. That required going into the gas company’s easement – the right of way they use on municipal streets – which required the water and gas utilities to negotiate the details. The town had to wait on the outcome.

Watterson said when the work is finally done Estes will work better for everyone using it. The improvements that drivers and other travelers will see include an additional turn lane at Estes/MLK, added crosswalks with flashing lights and pedestrian signals, and a crosswalk near the middle school with a flashing yellow light and a protected median concrete island.

“I know everyone, myself included, is fatigued and frustrated with the ongoing construction,” Watterson said, “but try to keep the end product in mind when making detours around town.”

BOX Government construction and road projects often have a long timeline, and Estes Drive is no exception. Chapel Hill’s website says the genesis was 2009, when a federal program offered the city funding for bicycle-related road improvements. In 2013, the town identified Estes as a priority to receive the funding. Then came public outreach, the project design phase and design changes based on public feedback. In the fiscal year 2016-2017, the town received $2.3 million in federal funding for the Estes upgrades.

Chapel Hill requested contractor bids in 2021. The project proposal included a mile of bicycle and pedestrian improvements along Estes between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Caswell Road: raised bicycle tracks on both sides of Estes; a 5-foot sidewalk on the south side; and a 10-foot multi-use path on the north. The construction involves clearing, grubbing, grading, asphalt and concrete paving, drainage, erosion control, curb and gutter installation, plus signs, signal adjustments and striping.

By the time construction started in 2022, Estes had witnessed several accidents involving cars striking pedestrians and cyclists. The most high-profile incident came in December 2021, when a car hit two middle school students, seriously injuring them. Eliminating such accidents is the goal of Chapel Hill’s Vision Zero planning.

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.

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