Durham News

Plan made, N.C. 54 future up to players

If you virtually go to nc54-i40corridorstudy.com, you’ll find the final, approved version of how to keep traffic congestion in southwest Durham and eastern Chapel Hill from getting too much worse than it is already.

If you actually go to the N.C. 54/I-40/Farrington Road intersection, you’ll find out why Durham and Chapel Hill spent $350,000 to have the study done. It’s generally regarded as the Triangle’s most bottlenecked intersection, and should be the first place commuters see some practical results from the plans on paper.

That result would be a dedicated “slip ramp” allowing northbound motorists on Farrington Road to get onto I-40 going east, toward the Research Triangle and airport, without having to go through the intersection, said Leta Huntsinger, technical services team leader with the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The MPO has applied to the state Mobility Fund to pay for the $3.4 million slip ramp. DOT has not made an award yet, but Huntsinger and Durham City Councilman Mike Woodard, a member of the MPO’s transportation committee, said highway authorities have indicated they like the project very much.

Even so, the slip ramp would not open for three to five years, Woodard said, and it is but one of five different projects, totaling an estimated $18.5 million, directly involved in the intersection’s reconfiguration. Indirect steps include building and rebuilding a “collector street” system for decongesting traffic flow, estimated at $31.4 million.

Further along, but on the N.C. Department of Transportation’s to-do list and “in the funding stream,” said Chapel Hill Planning Director David Bonk, is widening N.C. 54 from four to six lanes from Farrington Road to Barbee Chapel Road: $22.7 million.

Long-range plan

The entire master plan for the corridor – from Fordham Boulevard (N.C. 15-501 Bypass) in Chapel Hill east to Interstate 40 in Durham County, and from Ephesus Church Road south to Stagecoach Road – spans from now to 2035.

The DCHC MPO gave the N.C. 54-I 40 master plan its seal of approval in May. Adopted plans, though, are not adopted laws and authorities’ priorities and minds can change over time.

“When the MPO adopts a plan that’s had that much work go into it, they tend to pay attention to it,” said Chapel Hill Town Councilman Ed Harrison.

The MPO has authority over transportation priorities affecting its members. The plan also involves augmented bus service and a light-rail line being managed by Triangle Transit, the future of which is wrapped up with the proposed light-rail line and the half-cent sales tax going to Orange County voters in November.

Besides building and rebuilding roads, rails and greenways and expanding public transportation, all dependent on money from sources outside the local area, the 54-40 big picture includes managing how the land they serve is used – which has a lot to do with how much traffic of all kinds there is to deal with.

“From the land-use perspective, there are some recommendations we would certainly take into account,” said Aaron Cain of the Durham Planning Department.

Carolina Crossing

An indication of how much they are taken into account could be already on the way in the form of a rezoning application for Carolina Crossing II: a 84,000-square foot office project, on a 5-acre Farrington Road site just yards north of N.C. 54.

Developer Chris Howlett complained, before the 54-40 plan was adopted, that its proposed reconstruction of the Farrington-54-40 intersections would discourage commerce and hurt businesses already there. Some nearby residents, on the other hand, claim that more development would only aggravate a bad situation.

The rezoning, case Z1200004, is currently under the city’s review. How it is received by the Durham Planning Commission and City Council could be a test of the 54-40 plan’s influence on real-life decision making.

“It definitely will,” Huntsinger said. “The challenge is, (the case) hit the review process before it was adopted (by the MPO) and ‘official.’ “

Ideally, she said, Carolina Crossing would be sited near a light-rail station where the 54-40 plan encourages high-density mixed-use development.

“But the light-rail station doesn’t exist yet,” she said, and won’t for more than a decade, at the soonest.

Neither Chapel Hill nor Durham planning staffs expect to ask their governing bodies to adopt the 54-40 plan as official policy, Cain and Bonk said. Still, Bonk said Chapel Hill’s council members have weighed in on it and work is under way to reconcile it and the town’s in-process long-range land-use plan.

“The important thing about the plan, until the funding comes along, is that it should be driving the municipal decisions (affecting) that area,” said Woodard. That includes planning, transportation and economic development – and who is making decisions for the next 23 years.