Four years ago, the Raleigh City Council asked the state Department of Transportation to widen a busy 1-mile stretch of Falls of Neuse Road between Interstate 540 and Durant Road.
Now residents who live along Falls of Neuse want the city to reconsider its support for the project, which they say could carve into people’s backyards and raze the trees and shrubs that shield their neighborhood from traffic. Residents of Muirfield say they only learned about the project this year and question the need to add lanes when the real traffic problem is the wait to get on I-540.
They have an ally on the council in District B representative David Cox, who says he will raise the issue when the new council is seated after this month’s runoff election for mayor. Cox says he has also heard from people beyond Muirfield who are worried about what Falls of Neuse will look like in the future.
“One of the things that I hear over and over again is that they don’t want to turn Falls of Neuse into another Capital Boulevard,” he said. “They don’t want to see all the trees stripped away.”
Meanwhile, NCDOT engineers are still working on the project’s design, which will determine how widening Falls of Neuse from four to six lanes will affect residents of Muirfield. This summer, DOT presented two plans: One that would put the bulk of the widening on the west side of Falls of Neuse, toward the neighborhood, and another that would shift the widening primarily toward the businesses that line the east side of the road. At the time, the construction cost for either option was about $7.7 million.
Ben Upshaw, the project engineer, said he expects the department will be able to announce its choice by the end of the month. He noted that the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission recently said it would make sense to do without bike lanes on the six-lane Falls of Neuse Road in favor of an existing bike path on the east side, which would reduce the width of the road and make expanding on the east side less expensive.
Ken Massey, whose house backs up to Falls of Neuse, is among the Muirfield residents made anxious by the project. The road had been widened from two to four lanes when he moved in 14 years ago, and a row of Leyland cypress trees was all that stood between traffic and his backyard. So he brought in 23 truckloads of dirt to build berms, then planted sweet gum and river birch trees, holly bushes and other greenery to try to wall off the road from the yard where his three children played.
Now one of NCDOT’s plans for widening the road again shows the right-of-way cutting through the berms. Massey says he doesn’t think widening the road justifies the damage to his neighborhood., when the bottleneck that causes the backups each morning is the entrance ramp to I-540 down the street.
“I just don’t fathom how adding one lane is going to help when it’s backed up on 540,” he said. “It’s like you’re creating another spot for people to sit in as they wait to get on the highway.”
The city council included the Falls of Neuse widening on a list of favored projects it sent to NCDOT in 2013. Eric Lamb, the city’s transportation planning director, says the city thinks the road can be made safer with the addition of medians that will reduce the number of left turns and make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street.
But the main goal of adding a travel lane in each direction, Lamb said, is to try to alleviate congestion that will only get worse in the future. Upshaw said as many as 60,000 vehicles per day will use this stretch of Falls of Neuse by 2040, up from a peak of 47,000 a day in 2015. With the added lanes, that traffic will grow to 65,000 vehicles per day by 2040.
“It’s going to increase whether we build something or not,” Upshaw said. “So the question is do you end up with 60,000 cars a day on four through lanes or 65,000 cars a day on six through lanes?”
Meanwhile, Muirfield residents have organized. They’ve posted yard signs along Falls of Neuse Road and collected hundreds of signatures on a petition asking the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, or CAMPO, to remove the widening from the list of projects that will receive money from the state in the coming decade.
“This is not the right answer,” said Lynne Aubrecht Beaman, one of seven residents along with council member Cox who implored CAMPO’s executive board to nix the project last week.
CAMPO decided to keep the project going, noting that if it voted to remove it from the list of state-funded projects the money would simply get returned to the state.
Later, board member Sig Hutchinson, a Wake County commissioner, said the majority of residents in his neighborhood, Bedford at Falls River, support the widening of Falls of Neuse, according to a survey. And board member Will Allen III, who represents the GoTriangle Transit Authority, said he thinks there’s a silent majority that supports road projects like this one.
“You only hear from the people who oppose things,” Allen said. “You don’t hear from the tens of thousands of people who use that road.”
Construction in 2019
A recurring theme in the argument against the widening of Falls of Neuse is that congestion would be better alleviated through other road projects, such as adding lanes to I-540, widening N.C. 98 across northern Wake County or turning U.S. 1 into a freeway between I-540 and Wake Forest. Cox mentioned all three when he spoke before CAMPO last week, in questioning the need to widen Falls of Neuse.
“We really don’t have a good transportation plan for northern Wake County,” he said.
Lamb, the city’s chief transportation planner, says those other road projects are coming, but they’re all going to take longer to plan and finance. The Falls of Neuse project moved to the top of the list, he said, because it’s a relatively modest project that will make a difference soon.
Upshaw, the DOT engineer, says it’s going to take all of the road projects in the works now to stave off gridlock in northern Wake County, including the widening of Falls of Neuse. He said NCDOT will refine its designs for the project in the coming months in hopes of acquiring right-of-way next summer and beginning construction in 2019. He said it would be a “unique situation” if the city council were to withdraw its support at this stage in the project.
“I’m not sure what would happen at that point,” he said. “It’s not something I’ve encountered before.”