Preferred by whom?

After running roughshod over the preference of voters out in the county by voting for the transit tax, Chapel Hill residents got a taste at the Nov. 19 Town Council meeting of what it felt like to be dismissed. Rural and urban voters differed sharply on whether to approve a tax that the bulk of which would fund a light rail arm to connect the medical centers in Chapel Hill and Durham, an incredibly lavish goodwill gesture on Orange County’s part to prevent Durham’s light rail from going nowhere. (Wake County has not yet bought in to the plan.) There being more voters in Chapel Hill than in the rest of the county, the transit tax on the Nov. 6 ballot was approved.

At the Nov. 19 Town Council meeting, David Bonk, the town’s long-range and transportation planning manager, asked council to back the Preferred Option set forth by the 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan, which lays out transportation projects to implement in the next 25 years or so. However, the plan, which covers priorities for Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, had little to offer Chapel Hill. Council members showed a marked lack of enthusiasm for endorsing it.

Council members raised concerns of getting a feasibility study done quickly to emphasize Chapel Hill priorities, fixing the I-40/N.C. 54 interchange, considering asphalt vs. concrete, and looking at pros and cons of superstreets and U.S. 15-501 travel lanes.

Ed Harrison objected to the MLK Bus Rapid Transit plan being postponed until 2026. Matt Czajkowski and Jim Ward joined forces in questioning the projected population and employment figures that showed Chapel Hill adding 1,000 jobs a year and were reluctant to endorse a plan based on specious projections. Without adding commensurate housing, Czajkowski said, we are certain to increase traffic. Endorsing the Preferred Option, he said, was endorsing widening roads for Chatham County residents to drive through Chapel Hill on their way to Research Triangle Park, delaying improved bus service, and increasing without increasing housing. “Who’s in charge of our destiny?” he asked. “We should be making these choices.”

Gene Pease took a practical approach. He supported the option because it provides funding to help with traffic on U.S. 15-501.

Bonk also proposed forming a work group to identify, propose and lobby for projects that serve Chapel Hill better. Pease, part of a group aiming to reduce the number of advisory boards and committees, pushed back, asking why the existing Transportation Board couldn’t handle the task. Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt explained that the Transportation Board advises on in-town projects, whereas the proposed work group would prioritize inter-community projects. The current situation of Kleinschmidt and Harrison attending the Metropolitan Planning Organization meetings doesn’t allow enough time for the town to give feedback on projects that should be a higher priority. Forming a work group that very night would send a message to the MPO that the town wants to “call some shots,” town manager Roger Stancil said.

Council agreed, unanimously endorsing the Preferred Option and forming a work group.
– Nancy Oates

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