What is good design? An age-old question. Broadly, however, it might mean that a project will leave the place it touches better off than it found it, and offer lasting benefits to the community. As I observed a recent N.C. Department of Transportation presentation on the proposed beltline widening, it occurred to me that DOT and other project boosters have not considered whether the plans are a good design.
As has been reported, the Wade/Hillsborough section alone will claim somewhere around 30 acres of Meredith College and NC State Faculty Club lands, mostly for flyovers and larger, more generous on and off ramps. This includes large swaths of mature forest, land for Meredith’s current and future growth, and scarce open recreational space for Raleigh’s residents. Once it’s gone, it won’t be coming back. And one can be sure that the land will most certainly not be better off. Fast-moving traffic, more asphalt, more noise, more exhaust, you name it. Wider highways don’t make for nicer places. Take a walk down the Meredith greenway, or stroll around the grounds at the Faculty Club. These are places of beauty, close to the urban center. These are places that should be preserved and enhanced, not bulldozed.
Somehow, the DOT seems exempt from consideration of place. Roads are conduits for moving traffic to and fro, and what they pass through seems to be of little interest or value. Residents in North Raleigh have recently questioned a widening of Falls of Neuse Road. Trees and buffers will be erased, traffic speeds will be higher, and the resulting six lanes will do nothing for the quality of the places it cuts through. Good for them – it is time to reassess our roadway addiction. The returns on these projects are far from clear, as widenings often merely invite more cars, more development and more traffic, quickly negating any “improvements.”
At the I-440 presentation, the $400 million project was pitched as an inevitable completion of a six-lane beltline. The DOT reported that if the roadway is not widened and improved, rush hour traffic would slow by 5 mph – by 2035. But don’t forget four years of construction, starting in 2018 or 2019, with completion in 2022 or 2023. Expect delays, to say the least. And in 2035, the beltline in its entirety will be at capacity again. No more room for widenings. Asked what would happen then, an official indicated that Raleigh will have to start “thinking differently” about traffic, including, perhaps, a much greater reliance on transit.
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The official concluded by conceding that the project was, in essence, a “stopgap measure.” We will be laying out nearly a half billion dollars to enlarge a road system we already know is going to be obsolete, and quite destructive to a valued landscape, for a possible 12-year window of improved service.
Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus has noted that “old roads lead to old places.” That is, doing the same thing again and again will lead to the same results.
Perhaps it is time to look for a new road here. For example, DOT, see what can be done with $200 million – nothing to sneeze at for repairs and upgrades. Just don’t eat up college campuses or green space. Stay in your right-of-way, please. It is already quite ample. The DOT’s skills and engineering expertise can doubtless come up with leaner, more efficient improvements.
Now, let’s take our newfound cash and redistribute. Let’s go to work on enhanced transit now. Let’s take $100 million, since we have it to throw around, and partner with Wake County to accelerate construction of our fledgling system. Buy more buses, run routes more often, build more shelters. Get busy with regional rail. Let’s dedicate our resources to long-term solutions to our mobility needs.
Then, let’s take $100 million or so and redirect it to affordable housing. Raleigh touts its current program, which budgets about $5 million a year. With $100 million, sites could be acquired, incentives created and units built – lots of them.
Our region is growing, aspiring. We will hear that budgets are set, funds can’t be transferred. Schedules are set and can’t be delayed. All the usual interference, leading to another incredibly invasive and expensive highway project that in the end will solve nothing and is part of the kind of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.
It’s time we check our community priorities and direct our resources accordingly. Let’s have some respect for our special places and protect them while we can. Let’s leave the old road and start to chart a course on the new. That is the only way we will get to the new places we want to go.
Ted Van Dyk, AIA, is principal of New City Design Group, a Raleigh architectural firm.
Learn more about Raleigh road projects
An open house will take place from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, at N.C. State University’s McKimmon Center, 1101 Gorman St., Raleigh. N.C. Department of Transportation representatives will answer questions and field comments on the widening of the Raleigh Beltline and other projects.