Clayton leaders see a growth-fueled path to the future but worry they won’t have enough roads to get there.
The Town Council reviewed transportation data and planned roadway projects at its meeting Monday night, and all signs point to a Triangle strangled with traffic.
“It’s pretty telling that without roadway improvements our region is going to be very congested,” town planning director David DeYoung said. “A look at our region in 2045 has every major roadway, including the Clayton 70 bypass, over capacity.”
In a presentation to the Town Council, DeYoung talked about a future where it takes twice as long to get from Clayton to downtown Raleigh, upward of an hour, and a trip to Raleigh-Durham International Airport that would take nearly two hours. And that assumes the completion of all roadway projects currently planned through 2022.
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U.S. 70 Business cuts through the economic center of Clayton, and practically every afternoon, the highway slows to a crawl as commuters return home from Raleigh and Research Triangle Park. DeYoung put traffic counts on the highway between 20,000 and 50,000 cars daily.
Mayor Jody McLeod said it’s amazing to have grown up in Clayton and see the town’s transformation over the past 40 years. Looking at the impending traffic headaches, though, made him worry that the geographic advantage fueling Clayton’s boom could grind to a standstill if people can’t get where they want to go.
“In economic development, part of our geographic location is what is benefiting us right now because of our close proximity to (interstates) 40 and 95,” McLeod said. “In the future that is going to be less and less and less important because so what if you can get to those places, you can’t get very far once you get to those places.”
Coming in-town projects include the widening of Branch Road, the widening of 70 Business, the South Connector, the North Connector and, already, a widening of the 70 Bypass.
The U.S. 70 Bypass is one of the fastest and easily traveled highways in Johnston County, with a 70 mph speed limit and rare congestion. But DeYoung said that road will feel more and more pressure as it gets upgraded to Interstate 42 and sees a new crop of travelers introduced by the coming 540 expansion.
“The widening of this bypass, coupled with 540 coming around to it, will definitely change the feel of this corridor from our Clayton scenic bypass to a true interstate,” DeYoung said.
The South Connector seems to get more complicated by the day. Planned as a route to funnel traffic from Clayton’s southern subdivisions to N.C. 42 and the Clayton Bypass, town leaders see the road as essential to making the town easier to navigate and as a release valve for the crush of traffic on 70 Business.
But right-of-way offered by some new subdivisions to move the project closer to reality seems to have had the opposite effect. The already built Cobblestone subdivision and the recently approved Village at Little Creek each offered a large swath of land for the South Connector. But DeYoung said the land donations might be stalling the project.
“(The South Connector) doesn’t get enough support at the local division level (of NCDOT),” DeYoung said. “The reason it keeps getting pushed back is DOT has some concerns, even though it’s been a planned corridor for a decade or so, about going through the Cobblestone neighborhood with a four-lane section of roadway.”
In order to move things forward, DeYoung said it might be time to rethink the South Connector’s route.
“We are talking with N.C. Division 4 about this road section and looking at opportunities and options to change our plans and still achieve what we want,” he said.
At its retreat last fall, the Town Council raised the possibility of chipping in town money to help speed up some of the state roadway projects that would benefit Clayton. With the Triangle’s traffic projected to outgrow its best-laid plans in 25 or so years, the option of local money paying for local roads isn’t going away.
“In my mind, it’s not too early to start thinking about how we fund some of these projects that are in the town limits so we’re not waiting until it’s even worse to build some of these roads,” Councilman Butch Lawter said. “It’s going to take not just developers, not just DOT, the town is going to have to contribute to get projects moved up the list. ... That’s probably something we should start considering now.”
Rather than simply pull money from the town’s general fund, DeYoung noted that Clayton could pursue 80-20 federal matching grants for road work. But those grants are competitive, he noted.