Some say planned U.S. 64 underpass in Apex would do more harm than good

When it comes to the N.C. Department of Transportation’s plans to turn U.S. 64 into a six-lane freeway through Cary and Apex, no one argues that the road should be left as it is. Residents of both towns experience the gridlock for themselves.

But that doesn’t mean people aren’t worried about how widening and changing the road will affect their lives. More than 200 people turned out Monday evening at a meeting hosted by the NCDOT to share their questions and concerns about the project, including whether the state would build sound walls, how wide would the bike lanes be on the side streets and could NCDOT lower U.S. 64 so it wouldn’t be so intrusive.

But the main focus of the meeting at St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church was on NCDOT’s plans to build an underpass to carry Shepherds Vineyard Drive under U.S. 64, connecting the neighborhoods on the south side of the road with the growing commercial area on the north. Shepherds Vineyard Drive would no longer connect with U.S. 64, but would pass under the road, parallel to Lake Pine Drive.

Many residents worry an underpass will turn the road into a busy thoroughfare, as drivers seek an easier route to and from the Costco shopping center, the new Harris Teeter at Lake Pine Plaza and the apartments and townhomes going up on Pine Plaza Drive. Residents of the Shepherds Vineyard neighborhood also fear that with the underpass Apex High School students and others will be more likely to use their neighborhood as a short-cut between the Lake Pine area and Laura Duncan Road.

Chelsey Purchase worries about the safety of her three children, ages 2, 4 and 6, and those of her neighbors on Chimney Hill Drive, the main street into the Shepherds Vineyard neighborhood.

“We’re already talking about whether we’re going to have to move,” Purchase said.

Liana DiBerto said Shepherds Vineyard residents consider Shepherds Vineyard Drive part of their neighborhood, noting that the entrance to the community’s pool and tennis courts is from the street. She told NCDOT engineers that she thinks they’re under-estimating the amount of traffic that will use Shepherds Vineyard Drive if the underpass is built

“I think I’d rather see it dead-ended, mainly because of the volume of traffic on that road,” DiBerto said.

Walter Manthey, a Shepherds Vineyard resident and outspoken critic of the underpass, thinks it would greatly harm the neighborhood for no real benefit. He also questions the cost, which he understands to be about $30 million (An NCDOT spokesman said its engineers are still going over the cost estimates provided by the contractor, but said the underpass should cost less than $30 million.)

“I don’t know who’s making money off this tunnel, but it’s an insane use of taxpayer dollars,” he said in an interview.

Bob Deaton, the project manager for NCDOT, said the underpass concept originated with the town of Apex and that NCDOT engineers agreed it looked like a good idea. Russell Dalton, the town’s traffic supervisor, told residents that dead-ending Shepherds Vineyard on either side of U.S. 64 would force people to use already busy Lake Pine Drive.

“It was our goal to provide as much connectivity as possible,” Dalton said.

Some residents said they supported the underpass. Julie Poston has lived on Chimney Hill Drive for two years and thinks dead-ending Shepherds Vineyard Drive would force more traffic through the neighborhood, not less. She also likes the idea of getting to the north side of U.S. 64 without having to use Lake Pine Drive.

“I’m not seeing a downside to the connection,” Poston said.

Some people learned at the meeting that their fears about the project would not be realized. What some had been describing as a tunnel under U.S. 64, with vertical walls, looked more like bridges, with sloped walls and bike lanes and sidewalks on either side.

Like others, Mary Marks had seen a pair of lines on the diagram that made it appear that people wouldn’t be able to turn left from Shepherds Vineyard into the Eva Perry Regional Library, which worried her. It turned out those lines were a glitch in the software, not a planned barrier to left turns.

“We’re very happy about that,” said Marks, who recently retired from the library after 21 years. “Because we’re concerned about using our library.”

Like others in the room, Marks could remember when U.S. 64 was still a two-lane road in the early 1990s. Growth has made that unimaginable now. Ryan White, who is managing the project for Stantec Consulting, a contractor, emphasized that the six-lane highway with interchanges would be needed for future growth, not only in this part of Wake County but to the west in Chatham County.

“It’s already a solid wall of cars at rush hour,” White told the crowd. “Now imagine what it will look like in 2040.”

The proposed interchanges at Lake Pine Drive and Laura Duncan Road are part of a broader plan to remake U.S. 64 from U.S. 1 in Cary to near N.C. 55 in Apex. A report on the project’s environmental effects is expected to be finished in April and will include NCDOT’s final concept for the project, including whether to build the Shepherds Vineyard underpass. Construction isn’t expected to begin until 2022 and would take three years to complete.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.