Plan for traffic circles goes flat

Council doesn't have enough votes to approve a years-in-the-making project to revitalize Hillsborough St

Staff WriterJanuary 13, 2007 

  • It's a circle built at an intersection designed to move vehicles through at a slow but constant pace, also known as a traffic circle or rotary.

— The city's seven-year flirtation with English-style roundabouts, meant to bring charm and order to Hillsborough Street, appears finished.

Mayor Charles Meeker spent the week heavily lobbying the two council members still wavering on the $3.7 million project.

But Philip Isley and Joyce Kekas won't budge without a major overhaul, leaving the project without the five council votes it needs for approval. Isley and Kekas fear roundabouts will choke Hillsborough Street traffic to a two-lane crawl and rob businesses of much-needed daytime parking.

Both agree the street is suffering through a decades-long slump but consider traffic circles the wrong remedy. Isley likened the plan to "giving a shot of penicillin to a person with diabetes."

Kekas said the pressure to vote yes hasn't changed her belief that roundabouts would turn Hillsborough Street into a new version of Fayetteville Street Mall.

"I am being pushed into a corner, and I'm coming out fighting," she said. "I absolutely believe this is the wrong thing to do."

The city spent about $260,000 for engineers to draw up the plans.

The money was to come mostly from $3 million in road bonds that voters approved for Hillsborough Street in 2005. But if the project tanks, it will go unspent for now.

"We could still use that money for any other Hillsborough Street project we want," Isley said. "We've got 2000 park bond money we haven't spent yet."

Neighbors reacted to the news with sadness. Many have sat through meetings, examined drawings and quizzed engineers since 1999.

"The council hasn't heard the same arguments that we've heard," said Paul Blankinship of the University Park homeowners association. "These weren't touchy-feely things. These are hard, cold statistics from engineers. It's disappointing."

The roundabout idea has percolated on Hillsborough Street since 1999, consuming thousands of hours of meetings and involving reams of statistics.

The street averages about 19,000 cars a day, making it potentially dangerous for N.C. State University students dodging cars and Wolfline buses. Meanwhile, business there continues to droop.

Roundabouts, many felt, would slow traffic but still keep it moving. The plan called for Hillsborough Street to get wider sidewalks, a seven-foot-wide median and only two lanes instead of four.

By the time it came to the council late last year, the plan called for eight roundabouts eventually, starting at Horne Street (near Marrakesh Cafe) and Logan Court (near Bruegger's Bagels.)

Meeker has called the Hillsborough Street project a natural step after the opening of Fayetteville Street to cars last summer and the successful spruce-up in Glenwood South.

To sway Isley, he enlisted former Councilman Kieran Shanahan, a Republican and attorney like Isley who backed the project while on the council.

But Isley called roundabouts a "drastic" fix. Glenwood South worked, he said, because there was so much private investment.

"I don't think it's the right plan," he said. "If anyone pushed a button to cross the street, it stops traffic."

N.C. State officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

Kay Leager, a neighbor and officer in the homeowners' association, also was saddened.

"It deserves to be a nice street," she said. "Our neighborhood is right behind it, and it is a very walkable neighborhood. We felt more people could come and enjoy it."

But Councilwoman Jessie Taliaferro said she could not find another example of a roundabout in a place with on-street parking. She believes they won't work in a compact, urban spot and that Raleigh can't afford to lose a major route to slow traffic.

"We have to have Hillsborough Street as a major thoroughfare," she said. "It has to move people in and out of downtown."

Staff writer Josh Shaffer can be reached at 829-4818 or jshaffer@newsoberver.com.

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