It’s not official approval – yet – but the state transportation department and City Council members have given assent for trimming miles of U.S. 15-501 Business from five lanes down to three.
The “reconfiguration,” or “road diet,” is just a matter of putting paint in new places after the state transportation department has the highway repaved later this year or early next.
That relocated paint will mark off bicycle lanes and on-street parking places and, officials say, make the road a safer place by bringing down the speeds of cars and trucks that now usually run well above the 35-mph posted limit.
“It feels dangerous, and it is dangerous,” Councilman Steve Schewel said during a recent council discussion on the idea.
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“It’s paint upon the road,” said Christin Lampkowski, chairwoman of the nonprofit Bike Durham board. “If we do find that this is not a beneficial change in that area, we can at minimal cost change back.”
Reconfiguring U.S. 15-501, aka Chapel Hill Boulevard (nando.com/151), was an idea of the city transportation staff, but since the boulevard is a state-maintained highway, the N.C. Department of Transportation has final say.
State authorities, Mayor Bill Bell said, are “standing by to act on the preferences expressed by the city of Durham.”
A preference for putting the boulevard on a diet will probably get formal approval at the June 1 council meeting.
Pro and con
DOT has U.S. 15-501 Business scheduled for resurfacing from Garrett Road to University Drive. Reconfiguring is to start at the Chapel Hill Road interchange and run to University Drive, creating a center turn lane, one vehicle lane each way, bicycle lanes on both sides and 21 on-street parking places near restaurants on the north side.
Cyclist Jennifer McDuffie said she has talked with over 30 others who live in the area.
“They agree with me they would like to be able to walk, like to be able to bike” on 15-501 and feel safe, she said.
“What we have to think about is whether we want to stick with status quo, when it’s all about cars ... or about the future,” she said.
On the other hand, Lee Barnes, speaking for several business owners on the road, opposed the plan, saying it would divert traffic onto nearby residential streets and that the on-street parking would lead to accidents.
University Drive homeowner James Montague had a similar objection, and Chip Woods with a beverage company that serves several 15-501 businesses said the change would be unsafe for his truck drivers entering and leaving parking lots.
City Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen, though, said the parking spaces would be placed so as not to interfere with sightlines, and the three vehicle lanes should be enough to handle the 15,000 cars and trucks a day that use the road.
That traffic rate has been the same for the past five years, he said, and projections indicate it’s not likely to change in the future. For comparison, Main Street near Duke East Campus, which has had a similar conversion, carries 11,000 to 16,000 vehicles a day, Ahrendsen said.
Safety is the main reason for trimming the roadway, he said.
Traffic now moves “considerably above the posted speed,” he said, and city research has found the crash rate on that section of 15-501 is more than twice the national average. From 2009 through 2014, there were 157 crashes and 54 injuries (nando.com/1b3).
“I use this corridor ... close to daily,” Councilwoman Diane Catotti said. “It’s just treacherous.
“Lowering speeds will just help everyone in the area, and we can of course ‘course reevaluate’ it if we have to in the future,” she said.
Schewel said he was “appreciative” of the comments in opposition, but likes reconfiguring for safety’s sake.
“Because traffic will be slower, I think it will be safer for everybody,” Schewel said. “It will be a friendlier place.”