On the road

Merritt’s diners can now choose to sit at tables with awnings where the gas pumps used to be. Al fresco dining is not something most Chapel Hill residents associate with Merritt’s, where the famous BLT remains a favorite and a lot of the clientele is construction workers.

But the new scene at Merritt’s will soon be more complicated and outdoor dining less palatable because work on the widening of South Columbia Street from Manning Drive to Fordham Boulevard is set to begin in the next year and a half.
Check out the N.C. DOT Web site at https://apps.dot.state.nc.us/Projects/Search, then do a search for Orange County projects (or STIP U 0624), and you’ll see that the South Columbia Street project has a let date of November 2011.

It’s another benefit of the strained economy and dwindling state tax coffers – whereas state engineers and lawyers were quite content to drag out projects in an attempt to wear down municipalities that were not too keen on state road mandates, legislators now are in no mood to continue to wrangle, especially if giving in to local demands will save state money. You can see that in the recent capitulation on Smith Level Road in Carrboro.

You could catch a glimpse of the end back in February 2009, when the town brought a 20-year debate that was more like a tug-o-war to a close by approving the $4.3 million project. While the state initially wanted a five-lane road, the plan now is to have two lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks on either side and turn lanes at intersections.

The Town Council didn’t like the bigger road and let the state as well as UNC know it. The late Chancellor Michael Hooker had agreed to a narrower road before he died, but former Chancellor James Moeser and UNC Hospitals officials began pushing again for a wider road than what the council had in mind. The council resisted and finally got what it wanted.

The cost to the town of the project is small, about $25,000, but there will be a cost to Chapel Hill Transit. Bus route changes during construction could set the transit system’s partners back between $600,000 and $1.1 million.

There also has been talk of making the street a one-way avenue heading north in the morning and heading south in the evening during construction. That probably won’t make it any easier to enjoy a BLT at Merritt’s, whether on the “patio” or in the front seat of a dump truck.

But at least this long-awaited project now seems cleared for takeoff, and the neighbors, motorists, bicyclers and pedestrians who use the street can begin anticipating a much safer street.
–Don Evans

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  1. Ed Harrison

     /  April 1, 2010

    NCDOT confirmed in a meeting with Town staff on Thursday morning that the contract would be “let” to rebuild South Columbia in November 2011, which means that construction could begin as soon as January 2012. In addition to bike lanes and sidewalks, the project will add bus pull-offs and stormwater drainage improvements. This all would have happened a lot sooner but for a *former* Medical chancellor, and but for former Chancellor Moeser’s initial reneging on his predecessor’s honorable agreement. The UNC “boulevard” approach (4 lanes with a wide median) would have required the demolishing of a long row of dwellings, plus all of Merritt’s store.
    The DOT environmental document never addressed the use of the road by some 19 bus routes (more than most cities in the Carolinas have overall), and consequently did not address the significant additional cost to UNC, Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

  2. Nancy Oates

     /  April 1, 2010

    Now I’m in trouble, Ed. Don had “let” and I went back in and changed it to “slated to begin.” Mea culpa.

  3. david sutton

     /  April 2, 2010

    tried to open the link to see the project and it was dead…..can you repost the link so i can see what they’re going to do on s. columbia…..also, posted a link for you on facebook….you should get a fan page there….

  4. NancyDon

     /  April 2, 2010


    Sorry about the Link to Nowhere. I’ve edited the address, so now you can get there from here!

    BTW, the South Columbia Street project STIP number is U-0624.

  5. Joe Capowski

     /  April 4, 2010

    We residents near to and daily users of S. Columbia have been waiting a long time for these improvements. I first learned on the proposed improvements in November, 1980, but they had been on the DOT plan years earlier. When I heard that the actual construction would start in the fall of ’09, I hoped that the budget would not push back the project further, but it did, but by only two years, knock on wood.

    For me there are two issues here; the actual improvement of the road and the stability of the properties that face it. For years the uncertain future of the road has made it less likely that adjacent property owners would invest in their properties. Once the improvements are done, the private investment will take place, so there will be a double benefit, the road itself and the improvements to the homes and businesses along the road.

    A decade ago I was delighted to see the letter that Elson Floyd, Chancellor Hooker’s chief-of-staff, wrote to the DOT, agreeing to the town’s proposal for a minimal widening with sidewalks, bike lanes and bus pullouts. I was, to an equal degree disgusted with Chancellor Moeser’s attempt to sabotage the agreement, and now thankful that the current plans do not include Moeser’s concept. I can understand the UNC Health Care’s CEOs, Drs. Houpt and then Roper’s view of 12 lanes to the bypass, for their goal is always to make vehicular access to the hospitals as easy as possible. Here is a stereotypical example of state-versus-town tension, which will always exist. I am very thankful for the current Chancellor Thorp’s understanding of Chapel Hill in a manner that his predecessor did not.

    I look forward to the improvements and consequential stability and private investment.