UNC staff will flee football traffic

Early quitting time angers many

Staff writerOctober 22, 2009 

A camera at I-40 and N.C. 54 (exit 273) shows traffic before the expected crush tonight for the UNC-Florida State football game tonight.

N.C. DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

— Thousands of UNC-Chapel Hill employees will be forced to leave work two hours early today, and some are grumbling about the early quitting time.

The Tar Heels will play their first Thursday night football game at home this evening, taking on Florida State University for a college match-up that will be aired at 8p.m. on ESPN.

The prospect of thousands of fans flooding into Chapel Hill to see the Tar Heels and the Seminoles prompted UNC-CH administrators to re-arrange the work schedules of 11,500 employees in an effort to ease traffic congestion. It also caused local public-safety officials to call in extra troops to help patrol the streets and sidewalks.

"The biggest concern we have is evening rush hour," said Lt. Kevin Gunter, a spokesman for the Chapel Hill police department.

UNC-CH officials have resisted Thursday night home games for years, as have many schools with stadiums on campus.

Then last year, after the Tar Heels beat Rutgers University on a Thursday night early in the season, the program got a bump in the rankings and free prime-time national publicity that could help win over potential recruits.

Suddenly, there was less opposition to the notion of a Thursday night matchup -- particularly if the game were held during fall break, when students would be away.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity to showcase our campus," Chancellor Holden Thorp said in recent e-mail to UNC-CH employees and students. "The topic of Thursday night football has vexed our campus for years.

"We have resisted scheduling a Thursday night game in Chapel Hill during classes, a stance that I support. This year, however, we proposed the idea of holding the game during fall break."

But the campus does not close down during fall break.

Administrators announced in August that employees would have to leave work at 3 p.m. today so parking decks and lots that are available to football fans on the weekend would be available tonight. Kenan Stadium seats 60,000.

'Nightmare for some'

State law requires the employees to make up the two hours later. Squeezing them in between child care or second jobs will present problems for some of the work-a-day folks.

"It's a heck of a nightmare for some people," said Tommy Griffin, head of the UNC-CH Employee Forum. "There's been some grumbling."

He said the parking decks are supposed to be cleared of employee cars by 3:30 p.m. "I don't see how that's going to happen if everybody is getting off a half hour earlier," Griffin said.

UNC Hospitals also changed its schedule because of the game. Patients will be discharged at times when traffic is not expected to be heavy.

For two weeks, public safety officials have been trying to warn Chapel Hill residents and others of the expected traffic snarl.

Nine roadside signs flash the information, and postcards have been mailed to neighbors.

"We have tried to tell the public to expect delays," Gunter said. "If what we've seen from Florida State in the past is true, we're expecting fans to show up early.

"The downtown area, we expect, won't just be filled with vehicles, but foot traffic, too."

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-932-8741

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