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A road less traveled?

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The line on the Durham map showing the latest version of the road formerly known as Eno Drive was either a reasonable compromise or a con job--depending on which part of the room you were sitting in at last week's meeting of the regional Transportation Advisory Committee.

On the side of the room where Eno Drive opponents had gathered, the line snaking north up Old Oxford Road toward Treyburn looked all too familiar. Despite assurances from city and state traffic engineers that the proposed road is a very different animal from the Northeast/Northwest highway loop that's been on the planning map for 30 years, members of the "No Build Coalition" say it will have the same effect: promoting sprawl in northern Durham while failing to ease gridlock on local roads.

So they were disappointed when, despite a vote to kill the long-debated loop in October, elected leaders from three counties who make up the TAC agreed last Wednesday to include the newest rendition of the road in a long-range transportation plan to be aired at an upcoming public hearing.

Several TAC members noted that approving the plan for public comment is not the same as voting to make it part of the long-range document that goes to the state--a decision they'll be making Dec. 18. Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy went so far as to say he'd vote against including the revised northern route on that date.

But loop opponents still weren't happy. "The state Department of Transportation's own modeling clearly shows that this does nothing for traffic on Roxboro Road," says Caleb Southern, a coalition member who was at last week's TAC meeting. "This entire project is based on a flawed premise, which is that as soon as any road gets busy, what you do is build another one to disperse traffic further out."

It's not only the direction of the road that looks familiar, its backers are also the same. The plan presented to TAC leaders Nov. 6 was pushed by the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, which has long argued for a more extensive highway loop linking U.S. 70 and I-85, but now seems willing to accept a shorter route.

State and city traffic engineers making the presentation argued that the modified loop is needed to ease future traffic congestion that will result if Durham's current land use plan is followed. Without the new four-lane road, they said, residents of the county's northern end will have no alternate route to I-85 other than crowded north/south arteries like Roxboro Road and Duke Street.

Before getting to their studies, though, they had to spend a sizable chunk of time explaining to elected leaders from Orange, Durham and Chatham counties who sit on the TAC, exactly where the new route goes and how it differs from similar alternatives that have been proposed and tossed out over the years. For the record, the proposed road (officially known as "Option 7 Hybrid," though a more entertaining choice is the The Herald-Sun's "not your father's Eno Drive") runs from U.S. 70 at the Wake County line north of I-85 along Old Oxford Highway and Snow Hill Road. It ends at Roxboro rather than at Guess Road, as in previous versions.

Ironically, traffic engineers could likely have gotten elected leaders to agree on that route last spring when they were looking for a way out of the impasse over an Eno Drive that went through Eno River State Park. Instead, they rejected a similar path at that time because they said it wouldn't do enough to ease traffic on Roxboro Road.

This time around, engineers argued that a smaller loop will help keep U.S. 70 from getting clogged up--though they admitted its effect on other area roads would be less dramatic. "It's analogous to Martin Luther King Parkway in southern Durham," said Durham Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen. "It reduces traffic on U.S. 70 and reduces overall vehicle travel." Specifically, studies showed the new road will reduce future congestion on "arterial roads" such as Roxboro from 27.9 percent to 24 percent in the mornings, and from 22.8 percent to 20 percent in the evenings. Gridlock on U.S. 70 will be eased by 10 to 20 percent. (Reductions of 30 percent are considered significant.)

TAC members weren't exactly bowled over by the numbers. "When I look at this map, what strikes me is that north of I-85 on the revised Option 7, it's largely blue," or under capacity, said Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who is an alternate on the TAC. "I have to question if it's needed."

Orange County TAC members wanted assurances that planners don't intend to take the proposed road west of Roxboro at some point in the future. "That's the only thing that you could see that makes this an actual loop. On this map, there's no loop," said Orange County Commissioner Alice Gordon. "We stand ready to listen to anything Durham has to say. We'd just like to know what the intentions are, if any, to go to the west."

One thing everyone did agree on is that the latest plan no longer threatens Eno River State Park, as the previous northern loop did. "That's a real positive movement," Ahrendsen says. "And this route still provides the alternate route from northern Durham to points south that everybody's been trying to identify."

Also since last spring, the law governing state Highway Trust Fund money has been changed so that Durham no longer has to follow a prescribed loop route in order to get funding. Instead, the law now says funds can be allocated to a plan that local elected leaders and the state DOT agree on.

For Milo Pyne, a board member of the Eno River Association and a longtime participant in the northern loop debate, that's the change citizens need to keep in mind as the long-range plan is being considered.

"It's taken awhile for the consequences of that to sink in," Pyne says. "Before, the trust fund [law] meant you had to be either for or against a road. Now, it's opened us up to a whole universe of larger possibilities. I think right now people are talking past each other. But I'm hopeful we can come to a resolution."

A public hearing on the TAC's long-range transportation plan--including the newly modified loop--is slated for 7 p.m. on Dec. 4. A final vote will be held at 9 a.m. on Dec. 18.

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