Raleigh seeks better way to handle road races

More than 70 of the road-closing events are planned next year

mgarfield@newsobserver.comDecember 19, 2012 

— With the number of road races on pace for an all-time high, city officials will consider new steps to move the events away from center-city neighborhoods where people complain about street closures and traffic hassles.

One option could be to impose tighter limits on races in downtown and along Hillsborough Street. The city may encourage, or perhaps require, race organizers to use less populated areas such as the streets around PNC Arena and N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus.

“When people come to us with requests, we need to start moving them to other parts of the city where tying up traffic won’t be a problem – places where there’s not a bunch of people on a Saturday morning,” said City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin.

It’s not a new challenge. The council’s law and public safety committee, led by Baldwin, will take up the issue in late January, marking the fifth time in the past three years that the committee has reviewed road race procedures.

The latest review comes as Raleigh wraps up a record-setting year. The city is on pace for 71 road races, double the number from four years ago. Of those, 36 passed through all or parts of downtown and Hillsborough Street.

Raleigh could host more than 75 races in 2013, based on early projections. Plans for a high-profile marathon in 2014 helped spark the latest round of discussion.

The nationally popular Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon will make its debut in Raleigh in April 2014 – good news for tourism boosters but a potential hassle for neighbors who may have to contend with multiple races planned on the same day. Held in two-dozen cities around the world, the Rock n’ Roll event includes rock bands playing at various points along the course.

“We need to evaluate the timing of this race, as well as look at how we’re going to address future road races in the city,” said Councilman Thomas Crowder, who asked for the review.

Why the increase?

With names like Jingle Bell 5K, Run Green 5K and Monster Dash, road races have sprung up in association with a long list of occasions and causes.

Jim Young runs a company that handles registration and timing for dozens of road races each year, including an annual autism awareness run and the Jingle Bell event. The trend is pretty simple. If you want to get people involved in a cause, you put on a road race, Young said.

“Back in the old days, we tried to bring in top runners and make it a sporting event,” he said. “Now it’s a fundraiser. More people are participating. There are very few competitive races left.”

Young said Raleigh has been a hospitable place for road races, even as other cities have imposed restrictions.

A few years ago, for example, the city dropped a requirement for races to pay workmen’s compensation insurance to cover off-duty police officers who staff the courses. The cost could add as much as $1,500 to the cost of an event.

“Used to be, you couldn’t have two races in Raleigh on the same day,” Young said. “Now the rule is, you can’t have two races in the same neighborhood at the same time. Raleigh has been good to road races.”

But the races have become a source of frustration for many neighbors.

Three years ago, the city was flooded with complaints following the Krispy Kreme Challenge, which caused major traffic blockages near the Pilot Mill, Seaboard and Mordecai neighborhoods just north of downtown.

Soon after, Raleigh officials devised a system to better notify residents and businesses of upcoming street closures. The city also began requiring streets to remain at least partially open during races. A special events coordinator in the police department now works with race organizers to root out potential conflicts.

But the problems haven’t gone away.

This year, a Sunday morning race held by the SPCA near Cameron Village made it difficult for church members to reach worship services. In 2013, the race will be moved to 8 a.m. to avoid disrupting churches.

Like other center-city neighborhoods, Mordecai has been a popular spot for road races. But that’s changing as the city and race organizers seek locations with less potential for neighborhood resistance.

Rebekah Weber, a research scientist who lives in Mordecai, says opposition often comes from a few residents who dislike the disruptions. Others see the events as showcases for their communities. Weber runs in 20 races each year.

“I like to show off our neighborhood,” Weber said. “Out by the PNC Arena, I wouldn’t do that race because it sounds like a pretty boring course. I’m less likely to do a race if it’s running around a parking lot.”

Garfield: 919-836-4952

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