David Cox is a soft-spoken computer scientist with a doctorate in his field. But he is not a traffic expert. Nor is a North Raleigh citizens' group, of which he is a member. And, Cox says, no one in the group is claiming to be.
Nonetheless, North Raleigh Coalition of Homeowners Associations (NORCHOA) is under investigation after a state traffic engineer complained that Cox had broken the law by publicly questioning an N.C. Department of Transportation study about traffic on Falls of Neuse Road.
In the long-running saga of where and how to widen Falls of Neuse Road in North Raleigh, Cox and NORCHOA have been trying to convince the N.C. DOT that two additional traffic signals at strategic locations near their homes would make the busy road a lot safer.
The DOT's response? Not only are the residents wrong, they've also broken the law by challenging DOT's conclusions as mere citizens.
In December, State Traffic Engineer J. Kevin Lacy filed a complaint with the N.C. Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors against Cox. Lacy alleged that a critique of DOT's position, written by the group and mailed by Cox to his congressman, U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, among others, qualified as illegally practicing traffic engineering without a license.
The examiners board notified Cox in a letter dated Dec. 28 that he is under investigation, because "Allegedly, this document"—the critique—"should have been prepared and certified by a Professional Engineer" and was not.
"The only plausible explanation for this complaint," NORCHOA fired back in a letter to the board Jan. 11, "is as a blatant attempt at a strategic lawsuit against public participation"—a SLAPP suit—intended "to silence NORCHOA going forward."
The four-page NORCHOA report is clearly labeled as work "Submitted by the Residents of North Raleigh." In it, the residents did argue that City of Raleigh engineers, whose licensed work was accepted by DOT, should've considered potential future traffic volumes on Falls of Neuse Road after the widening project is complete—rather than base a determination about traffic signals on data before the widening.
The crime, if proven, is a misdemeanor, according to Andrew Ritter, the board's executive director, and would be prosecuted by the Wake County District Attorney. A more common resolution, Ritter said, is that the board issues a cease-and-desist order. It could also dismiss the allegation as unfounded. Ritter said the investigation could last three to four months.
In his complaint, Lacy charged that NORCHOA's critique crossed a line between appropriate public comment and detailed analysis that should only be done by a professional licensed to do traffic engineering. The evidence, Lacy said, was the report itself. The board should decide whether the group violated the law and, if so, "take appropriate action."
Separately, Lacy wrote Cox that he is legally required as a licensed traffic engineer to report anyone treading on the profession's turf. "Analyses and decisions impacting the safety of the public are all determinations that are to be made by licensed engineers," Lacy stated.
Lacy told the Indy he's used to being "chewed out" by citizens who want a stop light installed or a speed limit lowered (or raised). He has no hard feelings toward Cox or NORCHOA, he said. Nor should citizens hesitate to comment or question N.C. DOT proposals and studies.
"I'm not by any means saying don't send us more questions or more comments," Lacy said. "I'm not opposed to people questioning us." But he added, "Would we allow citizens to do an alternate analysis of the structure of a bridge?"
City Councilor Russ Stephenson has wrestled with the Falls of Neuse project for several years as chair of the public works committee. He said the NORCHOA analysis amounts to "intelligent lay people who have an opinion" and who "used all the resources at their disposal to protect their community." Which is what they should do, Stephenson said. "I'm not sure what Lacy thinks was the smoking gun to indicate that [Cox] or anyone was holding himself out as a licensed professional."
Cox said he never presented himself as a traffic expert, let alone a licensed one, he said.
Otherwise, though, Cox was reluctant to talk about Lacy's complaint. He declined to be interviewed, but he later wrote to the Indy that the action was "cruel" and intended to quash his First Amendment right to petition for redress of government grievances.
NORCHOA is a nonprofit group of residents from seven North Raleigh subdivisions comprising more than 700 homes. It was created in 2006 to work with city and state officials on the Falls of Neuse widening project from Raven Ridge Road north to the Falls of Neuse River Bridge. "As part of this involvement, NORCHOA regularly has submitted its own analyses of various aspects of this project," it said in its Jan. 11 response. "Until now, no one has accused NORCHOA of practicing engineering without a license."
The issue of the traffic lights peaked last spring after a 14-year-old girl was killed trying to cross nearby Durant Road on her way to school. NORCHOA pointed to the lack of a traffic signal on Durant and began to argue that the stretch of Falls of Neuse near Durant Middle School would be similarly dangerous unless traffic signals were installed at two intersections—Coolmore Drive and Tabriz Point/ Lake Villa Way.
In April, Raleigh City Council voted to pay for the traffic signals itself rather than wait for the state to do so. In a letter to DOT, Mayor Charles Meeker said the signals would help with pedestrian safety and also be necessary for traffic to enter Falls of Neuse from adjacent subdivisions without forcing dangerous left-hand turns or U-turns.
But because Falls of Neuse is a state road, Raleigh needed the state's approval. It didn't get it. DOT Secretary Gene Conti wrote to Meeker in May that the two intersections didn't meet any of the nine "signal warrants"—traffic conditions at various times—to justify traffic lights. Putting traffic lights where they weren't needed, Conti said, would leave the state open to lawsuits in accident cases.
NORCHOA, though, predicted that the traffic conditions would warrant signals when the widening project is finished. And according to NORCHOA's reading of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, a federal document that every traffic engineer uses and is publicly available online, Raleigh and DOT officials should've tried to estimate how the widening—and the installation of a new traffic median—would increase traffic at the two intersections where the median would have openings.
DOT's traffic engineers didn't read the manual that way, and at their behest, Raleigh officials submitted current traffic data to the state. Conti said DOT would consider pedestrian-triggered crosswalks as an alternative. DOT promised to revisit the issue of full traffic signals after the road is widened.
Cox said he believed DOT's position was flawed, and NORCHOA feared a repeat of the youngster's death: "We spoke up in the hope that we can prevent such a tragedy from happening again."