Should Cary’s Walnut Street get a ‘road diet’?

aspecht@newsobserver.comOctober 13, 2013 

Cars pass through the intersection of Walnut Street and Cary Towne Boulevard.

JILL KNIGHT — jhknight@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Follow heavily traveled Walnut Street as it forks left away from Cary Towne Boulevard, and the road becomes noticeably harder on the tires.

Unlike the smooth, black portion of Walnut that runs between Cary Towne Center and Cary High School, the northern section – between Cary Towne Boulevard and Kildaire Farm Road – is gray, cracked and uneven.

As Cary’s population approached 150,000, Cary residents last year passed an $80 million bond referendum to fund transportation improvements, parks projects, a fire station and upgraded bicycle facilities. Cary hopes to continue to sustain its reputation as “bicycle friendly,” and the town would use funds from the bond referendum to pay for repaving Walnut Street.

Given these developments, Cary plans to restore the road to mint condition. Orange cones are already lurking just off the road.

But, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Cary Arts Center, Cary hopes to collect the public’s input on two different approaches to renovation before getting started.

Option 1: Repave the road under its current traffic pattern, which includes four lanes and a turn lane.

Option 2: Give Walnut what one Cary transportation engineer called a “road diet” by reducing the road to one lane in each direction, adding a median and bike lanes.

The road diet “would increase safety for bicyclists, slow traffic ... (and) reduce turning conflicts from driveways,” said Kristen Dwiggins, Cary’s transportation engineering supervisor.

A median with grass and trees would also be designed to beautify the corridor, which leads northbound traffic to downtown Cary – an area the town is actively trying to promote through public-private partnerships and other infrastructure upgrades.

Both options could accommodate the 13,000 vehicles that drive the northern portion of Walnut Street each day, Dwiggins said, and each option is expected to cost about $2 million.

Although Dwiggins said Cary has no preference, some property owners along that portion of Walnut seem skeptical that a median and bike lanes would improve their quality of life.

Ed Norris, who lives on the southbound side of Walnut, bristled at the idea of not being able to make a left turn into or out of his driveway.

“If I was coming back from the mall, I’d have to go all the way down, probably to Warren (Avenue), and make a U-turn to come back to my driveway,” Norris said.

“You already can’t turn left anywhere in this town,” said Russell West, another Cary resident.

Local cyclists shrugged at the notion that adding bike lanes would increase the road’s appeal to cyclists.

“I wouldn’t drive it even if there were lanes because it’s a heavy-traffic area and there are lots of stop lights,” said Cary resident Nick Casper, pointing toward a light on Walnut from R.S. Dunham Park on Sunday.

“When you’re cycling, you don’t want to stop,” Casper said.

Christopher Strom, who lives just off Walnut, said he appreciates Cary’s consideration of cyclists. He sometimes bikes the 8-mile commute to his work in Apex. But, like Casper, Strom likes to take back roads instead of Walnut. And he wonders if reducing the road from two lanes each way to one lane might make the road even more dangerous for cyclists.

Drivers “would probably have even less room to pass me,” Strom said.

Some like the idea, though. Jeff Martin, who went running up and down Walnut on Sunday, said the median-bike lane combo such as the one on Lochmere Drive would lure more people to downtown Cary.

“It would certainly make this look a lot nicer,” Martin said, looking over his shoulder at a patched-up part of the road.

Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht

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