Time is strangely relative. Five years don't register on the evolutionary scale but represent an eon in our recent technological history. For local planners and residents working on a concept to improve South Columbia Street in Chapel Hill, five years seem like only yesterday. But for the state Department of Transportation, those same five years look like a throwback to the dinosaur age.
Culminating years of negotiations, the town, the University of North Carolina and DOT signed an agreement in 1998 to improve South Columbia Street, whose two lanes have become increasingly inadequate as Chapel Hill has grown. The design provided for the addition of bike lanes on both sides of the winding, residential street, select turning lanes at critical intersections, and sidewalks. The relatively tiny project carried a $2.9 million price tag, which to DOT is about as significant as a nickel at the race track.
But the deal was noteworthy enough that the American Planning Association featured South Columbia Street at its 2002 national conference, during a session titled "Transportation and Community Values." The old transportation planning model in North Carolina and throughout the United States, the session summary states, "has often emphasized functional efficiency--in particular, accommodating vehicular traffic--at the expense of other community values." The South Columbia plan represented a new way of thinking, one in which stakeholders balance mobility concerns with neighborhood interests, and alternative modes of transportation share the stage with road-building.
Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of the agreement was the participation of DOT. "Traditionally a bastion of top-down engineering approaches," the narrative continues, "many state Departments of Transportation are incorporating consideration of local community goals and values in the planning and design of transportation projects ... it may be useful to observe that the North Carolina Department of Transportation is in the middle of a 'sea change' in its relationships with local governments."
Regarding tradition, the APA left out most of the historical context, being a professional association averse to alienating public officials. Here's the rest: In addition to its obsession with road-building, NCDOT gained a well-deserved reputation in the 1980s and '90s as a haven for political cronies and other bottom-feeders, steamrolling communities with unwanted projects that benefited friends and campaign contributors, wreaking environmental havoc and otherwise behaving like a runaway freight train with an artificial personality that consisted of nothing but arrogance.
A shake-up of the department following a series of embarrassing revelations about conflicts of interest and influence peddling paved the way for change late in the decade. South Columbia Street was one result: DOT's initial recommendation, formulated in the early 1990s, had called for widening the road to five lanes. Getting the state to agree in ink to shave it down was, indeed, remarkable.
But it now appears that the American Planning Association's giddy assessment was premature. After James Moeser replaced the late Michael Hooker (who had helped forge the South Columbia agreement) as UNC chancellor, he and UNC Health Care System officials asked DOT in 2001 to reconsider the project. DOT secretary Lyndo Tippett ordered town officials and the university to come up with a new consensus, a directive he most recently repeated in a March 26 letter to Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy. "I must once again emphasize that a joint recommendation from all parties is needed regarding the scope of the project," Tippett wrote.
A quick aside: According to the federal rules governing such matters, the university should not have a final say in determining Chapel Hill's transportation priorities. That belongs to the town, DOT and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the regional authority that takes wish-lists from the various Triangle communities and hashes out an overall plan. UNC has a seat on the MPO's technical committee, but not the policy committee, which consists of representatives from local governments and ultimately decides which projects should make the cut from year to year. The problem "is that [DOT has] brought an entity into the process that does not legally belong there," says Chapel Hill senior transportation planner David Bonk.
That apparently doesn't matter to Tippett, who is allowing UNC to hold the South Columbia project hostage. Moeser and Health Care System management have made it very clear they want four lanes to maximize mobility for employees and patients. "We hope you will oppose plans that fail to address for southern access to Chapel Hill and the campus and insist that the town continue its dialogue with us," wrote health system board chairman John Stevens in a February letter to Tippett.
Just what has changed since the university agreed to the scaled-down plan in 1998 isn't clear. Though she can provide no data, UNC Health Care spokeswoman Karen McCall says the situation on South Columbia is bad and getting worse, necessitating a new look. "It appeared that things had changed," McCall says. "A couple of years ago people weren't in traffic jams, and now they are."
But according to Bonk, who has crunched the numbers, growth and any consequent increase in traffic was taken into account in the calculations that underpinned the agreement. And since then, several developments have actually reduced traffic projections: Chapel Hill's move to free bus service, the decision to widen Mason Farm Road to four lanes, fewer on-campus parking spaces in the UNC master plan, increased park-and-ride opportunities outside of town. "We have not seen any change in congestion on Columbia Street," says Bonk. "The potential increase in traffic is less than what we had predicted."
With no compromise in sight, Tippett's edict has already cost the town $850,000 that was to have been spent to obtain right-of-way for the project this year--because of the way DOT allocates and spends money, that amount will have to roll over to next year and will displace cash that could have gone to another transportation project. If UNC remains hostile to anything but a parkway for South Columbia, the stalemate could last indefinitely.
Reneging on agreements and exerting political pressure to get its way may reflect badly on the university, but such disputes between UNC and Chapel Hill are nothing new. Town and gown officials constantly play chess and butt heads in pursuit of their respective interests. A resolution that leaves the South Columbia neighborhoods--and the town's vision for itself--intact may yet be forthcoming.
The implications for DOT, however, are far more disturbing. Given Tippett's position that agreements can be changed on a whim, nothing would stop opportunists with political connections from monkey-wrenching similar deals if they're so inclined, no matter how late in the game.
Observers had hoped that the whiffs of progress emanating from the agency weren't entirely gaseous, that a shift in the ancient corporate culture of laying asphalt as the solution to all transportation problems was taking hold. Or at least that the agency could be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the present.
The Columbia Street agreement was not the only indicator that DOT was crawling out of the Pleistocene. At least some Board of Transportation members actually see themselves as representing their district's constituents and have helped push alternative projects the agency would not normally have funded. Nina Szlosberg, the board's environmental rep, says she's met countless talented and committed employees at DOT who understand the challenges at hand and are working hard to meet them. The impending landmark deal to finally kill off Eno Drive, she says, shows that DOT can come around, albeit slowly. "I really do think that change is underway," Szlosberg says. "It's the aggregate, the big, 400-pound, 14,000-employee bureaucracy that has a hard time moving in a different direction."
So, is Tippett's stand on Columbia Street an anomaly, a holdover from a bygone era? Or could it be a sign that DOT will no longer coddle these silly alternative ideas, that the boys are back in charge? Szlosberg may be right about the staff level, but the view at the top offers little hope to reformers: Tippett is an old-school hack who served on the Board of Transportation under Hunt and got his job with help from his good friend, state Sen. Tony Rand--a major UNC booster with numerous ties to his alma mater.
Gov. Mike Easley, who appointed Tippett, has shown some awareness of the fact that asphalt alone does not solve complex problems. Easley has proposed spending $700 million to improve existing roads and bridges, fund mass transit projects, upgrade signals and otherwise rejuvenate the state's transportation infrastructure. The money would come from a 1996 bond referendum for highway construction. But using that money for anything but new roads has already been challenged in court; not surprisingly, one of the plaintiffs is another fossil, former Secretary of Transportation Jim Harrington.
The dinosaurs finally ran out their string some 65 million years ago. But their descendants remain, intent on preserving their way of life, no matter how failed or outmoded time has proven it to be.
Contact Burtman at burtman@indy week.com