Smith Level Road

For approximately 25 years, DOT has been wanting to widen Smith Level Road. The latest effort to expand the number of vehicle lanes between Ray Road (town limit) and Morgan Creek bridge, was voted down by the Carrboro Board of Aldermen on April 20.

This morning's Herald-Sun reports that DOT staff has offered Carrboro 3 options:

  1. accept the current design since Carrboro's stated purpose is "to improve traffic capacity, bicycle and pedestrian access and improve vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle safety," and the plan does those things.
  2. remove SLR from the list of road projects altogether and let the town fund sidewalks and bikelanes
  3. ask DOT to design a two-lane road with sidewalks and bike lanes and the town would take over maintenance after the construction

Since when has Carrboro ever had a stated purpose  "to improve traffic capacity?"

DOT's traffic projections, being used to justify the need for increased capacity, are seriously flawed. They were collected prior to the 4-laning of 15-501 when Smith Level was being used as a cut through to avoid the construction mess. Those counts also use standard formula based on the number of residences along the road, without taking into consideration the high ridership on the J and D buslines that serve Smith Level Road and the fact that the area is built to capacity so no growth of any significance can be expected. They also assume that when Carrboro High School is at full capacity (in 2020 according to their data), that the majority of students will be arriving by single-occupancy vehicle. So what purpose would the sidewalks serve if they aren't for kids to walk to school? Those sidewalks don't go anywhere else!

I believe the aldermen and the mayor understand these flawed data issues, so I question anyone's claim that the town feels a need to improve traffic capacity.

But let's say those counts are accurate and there will be higher demand on the road in the future. Where would that demand come from? The only feasible answer is Chatham County, and those commuters should be using 15-501--isn't that why the state invested in widening it? If DOT wants them to use Smith Level, what purpose does it serve to widen just the Carrboro portion of the road and not the section that connects 15-501 to the town limit? It will just create a bottleneck and increase travel speeds on the 2-lane portion of the road.

This project, as currently designed, would cost over $6 million--for what purpose? The argument for increased capacity is based on something other than valid, reliable data. The aldermen are being put in a terrible position. They are stuck in the middle of DOT's chauvinism and the majority of neighbors along the road (as estimated by the turnout to the public hearing). We all want sidewalks and bike lanes, but the current design of the road sacrifices safety to achieve those amenities. I don't understand DOT. Not in the least little bit.



Chapel Hill News has an editorial this morning saying they would have voted with the mayor to go forward with the additional traffic lanes in order to get the sidewalks and bike lanes. "The safety, environmental and other benefits of bike lanes and sidewalks would outweigh the downside of widening the road. It seems unlikely that making one short stretch of Smith Level Road four lanes wide would attract large numbers of motorists who wouldn't otherwise choose that route." Could someone explain how adding unneeded traffic lanes is an environmental benefit? The point those of us who have opposed this project have been trying to make is that there isn't sufficient traffic to warrant additional lanes. And those additional lanes will serve as a negative factor with the CHCCS school board in expanding the walk zone for Carrboro High. So in addition to having traffic lanes that we don't need, we could end up with sidewalks that aren't used for health and environmental benefits associated with kids walking to school.  

Chapel Hill, and especially Carrboro, could get far better and more desirable results on the Smith Level corridor simply by making minor and low cost changes that affect the traffic patterns in desirable ways.First: dispense with "undesirable" traffic.  The major contributor to heavy truck traffic that is (literally) tearing the roadway up and providing the majority of unsafe operation is the illegal landfill masquerading as a mine. Any number of restrictions could be placed on the operation of this facility, such as actually enforcing existing regulations, that would throttle the activity to a sustainable level.  See below for another action (#4) that would be highly effective in the same vein.Second: restrict through-trucking.  There really isn't a reason that 18-wheelers should be permitted to use this two-lane country road as a bypass for the 4-lane divided highway just to the east.  Plenty of precedents exist for such traffic restrictions.Third: add a traffic signal at Damascus Church Road.  The traffic mitigation from this light (replacing an existing blinker light) would not only boost safety at this dangerous blind intersection butwould also, along with step 4, act to further discourage purposeless through traffic.Fourth: enforce the existing speed limits.  I have barked about this here on OP before, with very little result. After personally clocking traffic speeds nearly always in excess of the local speed limit, many of the most offensive vehicles travel more than 15 MPH over the limit.  This is legally called 'reckless driving' and can result in revocation of license - if anybody even cared to enforce the laws.  And, the two 25 MPH school zones on Smith Level more closely approximate a speedway ... I wish I knew how to research court records to see if there ever have been any citations issued for these zones, but I've never seen police pulling anybody over ...  I regularly clock vehicles, including Town-owned trucks and cars, at TWICE the legal limit in these safety areas.  You can't believe the bureaucratic run-around I get when I ask police to actually do their sworn duty and do something about this flagrant safety (and environmental) hazard.Take any of these four actions (all within the simple authority of the Carrboro BofA and other bodies) and, voila!  Smith Level Road reverts to the neighborhood street it is, instead of the de facto highway it's been allowed to become. Not an ounce of new blacktop needed, except maybe to fix the damage from the overloaded dump trucks.

They're pretty much in line with the ones the Smith Level Road task force recommended a year ago. Still haven't seen anyone monitoring speeders. The expectation was that the roundabout planned for Rock Haven would reduce the big wheelers, but if that doesn't happen we still have a request in to make it a truck free zone between 15-501 and Rock Haven. That would force the gravel trucks down to 15-501.


So far as I know, we have no authority to restrict truck traffic on a state highway.  That is NCDOT's jurisdiction.  Besides, the gravel trucks are going to a destination at the corner of Smith Level and Damascus Church Roads.  The only alternative route for them would be to drive down 54 to Jones Ferry, down Jones Ferry to the far end of Damascus Church and then all the way back to Smith Level Road.  Or am I misunderstanding your suggestion?

Currently the gravel trucks turn left from Damascus onto Smith Level and then go right onto Culbreth to get to UNC. The suggestion was to restrict truck traffic on Smith Level from 54 to Ray Road which would eliminate the big wheelers using it for a short cut and still let the gravel trucks turn right from Damascus and take 15-501 into UNC. A little bit longer for them, but not prohibitively. The towns and county can make the request to DOT--I was hoping that request had already been made.

Are you saying they would follow the green route marked on this map:

<a href="" title="smith level route by mark_chilton, on Flickr"><img src="" width="500" height="447" alt="smith level route" /></a>

as opposed to the red route they follow now?

Hmm.  Pardon my sorry HTML.  Please click through to the picture.

The green route is accurate. Your red route goes up Merritt Mill, which they do sometimes. But more often they turn right onto Culbreth from Smith Level (thus hitting two school zone areas).

I have lived just off South Columbia St. in Chapel Hill for many years, and can relate to this discussion is several ways.  First the parade of dump trucks that use S. Columbia to access the construction projects on the UNC campus do damage the road.  Since Carolina North will be a 50-year construction project, look for its surrounding roads (MLK, Estes, Homestead, Sewell School) to be severely damaged.  Since these are DOT roads and since I have little confidence that DOT will maintain them, I encourage the CH council to insert a clause in the CH-UNC development agreement to require a payment by UNC to cover the cost of the constant repair of these roads.I believe that the Carrboro Aldermen did the right thing in turning down DOT's offer of a major widening of Smith Level, even though DOT's proposal did include sidewalks and bikelanes.  In 1990, DOT offered CH 4.3 million to widen S. Columbia to a five-lane cross section, the same configuation that exists on MLK at town hall.  By a 6-3 vote the council walked away from the money, and the three who voted for it argued that this was our one and only chance for the money.  What actually happened as a result of that vote was that the town-DOT negotiations were continued.  In theory, starting this summer, S. Columbia St will get (what I call) the appropriate widening, i.e., turn lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks, without an auto-inducing major widening.  It has taken years, though much of the delay was due to a turnover of UNC and Hospitals leadership, with a new chancellor refusing to follow the written agreement of his predecessor, which thankfully does not apply to Smith Level.  I predict that Carrboro will get what its Aldermen want, though it may take some time. 

For those who haven't seen the CHN piece.  This is my favorite part:"The safety, environmental and other benefits of bike lanes and sidewalks would outweigh the downside of widening the road. It seems unlikely that making one short stretch of Smith Level Road four lanes wide would attract large numbers of motorists who wouldn't otherwise choose that route."And the downside for pedestrians trying to cross a five-lane road (remember those turn lanes at intersections) would not be torture, simply enhanced attempts at cheating death. Signed - John Yoo 

I'm a bit ambivalent about this decision.  This road should not be converted into any sort of thoroughfare, for reasons well-discussed on this thread.  I've seen and experienced this.The road does need bike lanes and sidewalks however.  I work in Southern Village, live near the 54/Jones Ferry interchange, and cannot afford car repairs.  I sometimes work odd hours that stretch beyond bus hours.  I've done the long, long trek, on roads with no sidewalks, some with no streetlights (another widespread local problem).  It's a dangerous road as it is.Better enforcement of speed limits would be a welcome improvement, and would also improve the issue of Smith Level as a cut-through traffic route.  Smith Level's status as a cut-through does deserve some consideration:1.  People who work in Carrboro (Fitch, Carr Mill, S States, or elsewhere in downtown), but can't afford to live in town.  This is a significant population, and the comments that emerged in the discussion ("Why should we continue to reward people's bad behavior" - using the road as a cut-through) smacks of economic elitism and absolute indifference to the reality of the not-very-wealthy servant class that does a lot of the unglamorous work of running the town.  This rather feudalistic sentiment has been expressed on multiple occasions, and frankly, it's offensive, and there's nothing 'green' or progressive about it; quite the opposite in fact.2.  The ugly, utilitarian blob of strip malls right over the county line in Chatham do serve a purpose:  many of us working poor types who do live (with difficulty) in town shop for basics there, because it either can't be gotten downtown, or if it can, it's out of our budget.  I support shopping locally as much as possible, but at my level of economic existance, I also have to make very hard choices, because no one cuts me any slack, economically speaking, and favors are few and far between here.I would like the economic context that seems to be hovering in the shadows of this debate to be brought into the light, because I do feel that the interests (and even safety) of working poor in Chapel Hill and Carrboro came in dead last in this discussion.

"I would like the economic context that seems to be hovering in the
shadows of this debate to be brought into the light, because I do feel
that the interests (and even safety) of working poor in Chapel Hill and
Carrboro came in dead last in this discussion."David--could you clarify what you mean? You started out saying that you don't think Smith Level should become a thoroughfare, but you close by saying the economic context is hovering in the shadows. Are you saying that by not widening the road, the working poor are being shortchanged?

My intent was:  the road should not become a thoroughfare, and 4 lanes is unneeded and excessive.  Bike lanes and sidewalks are needed however - basic improvement to the 2-lane configuration that currently exists.  In suggesting 'unfairness to the working poor,' I might be overstating somewhat, but - in using the road, and not being able to afford a car to get to a job out there, safer options for biking or walking are needed, sooner rather than later.  I don't feel that this was given any consideration.

All but a couple of the 40+ people who attended the last public hearing on SLR want sidewalks and bikepaths but not additional lanes. You want it for your own travel; some of us want it for kids going to school; some of us want it for other reasons. We stopped the 4 lanes; now we just need to work with the town of Carrboro to find a way to fund the bike paths and sidewalks. If you are interested in helping, let me know.

By rejecting the planned sidewalks and cycling improvements, the working poor--and everyone else who walks and bikes--are being shortchanged.I hope that all motorists on SLR, particularly those who rallied against the proposal, remain mindful that the option to rebuild the road to allow cars to easily pass bikes was rejected in favor of reducing traffic through congestion.  Please drive safe, don't speed, pass cyclists only when you can safely give two feet of clearance and share the road with all users.

100% of the problems on Smith Level Road would be solved by active and regular enforcement of the existing posted speed limits.Until and unless government agencies take responsibility for doing the job we pay them to do, no amount of hand-wringing -- or fresh blacktop -- will fix anything.

That begs the question of how you can enforce posted speed limits anywhere.  As far as I can tell, just about everywhere the speed limit means people go 10 MPH faster.  Maybe the thing to do is to make the MPH 10 lower and then have the police enforce it. Traffic is going to increase on that road though. Northen Chatham is growing like crazy and it essentially a suburb of Chapel Hill / Carrboro.  Much of the growth there involves UNC employees one way or the other.  A woman I know that lives in (the continuing to be built) Briar Chapel told me that of the six people that she knows there (including herself), five work at UNC and the 6th recently retired from UNC.  And I don't know if he was using a figure of speech or not but one of the homesellers there that I talked to told me that 90% of the houses he sells are to people that work at UNC.  The choice is to have those people live in Briar Chapel and drive along Smith Level Rd. in their cars on occassion or else live on all that empty land along Smith Level Rd and walk/bike along the road some and drive along it some. The 1980s are over.  The times, they have a-changed.   I think this same dynamic is causing the woes of businesses on Franklin St too.

The police can only do so much.  On a road like SLR--only one lane in each direction--if one motorist obeys the limit, everyone behind does too.

Passing is aa common occurrence.

Certainly.  My experience is mostly between downtown Carrboro and the new High School.  That is the project area.  It's mostly 3-lane and posted at 35mph.  I don't see much passing there, do you?A great many drivers pay scant attention to the posted limit but rather go with the flow and pace themselves to the car in front.  If you drive 35, many of them will too.Eliminating the turn lanes and re-striping to 14' travel lanes would allow motorists to safely overtake cyclists and discourage transformation of SLR into a sprawl-supporting thoroughfare.

The traffic problem area on SLR is roughly from the dialysis center to Heritage Hills, not from 54 to Rock Haven.  Cyclists and drivers alike are imperiled daily and it's a wonder that there are only the two fatalities there have been so far.  You should see the convoy of 18-wheelers racing through the area between 7 and 8 am, as they cut between the Carrboro Harris Teeter and the Cole Park/Chatham Downs grocery stores ... I regularly clock them at 55 MPH in a 35 zone ... they slow down only slightly for the overloaded dump trucks servicing the illegal mine on Damascus Church Road.

... in fact I try to allow extra time so I can make a couple of passes up and down the road during rush hour, driving the speed limit -- and always blocking traffic for a good distance.  I get people waving the finger at me, honking and swearing, tailgating like mad.  Since I am originally from 'up North' this sort of behavior is amusing and makes me feel right at home.Since the County Sheriff and Carrboro "police" can't be bothered to enforce the law, and the NC Highway Patrol isn't interested either, it's my job to make my neighborhood safer by providing an example of progressive citizenship and showing people they too can obey traffic laws.After all, I don't go tearing through anyone else's neighborhood at 20+ MPH over the limit, so, others should not do so in mine.  Golden rule, and all that.

The choice is to have those people live in Briar Chapel and drive along
Smith Level Rd. in their cars on occassion

 "on occasion"? or 2+ times per day?

or else live on all that empty land along Smith Level Rd and walk/bike along the road some and drive along it some.

yes--denser development closer to the urban core facilitates efficient maintenance and expansion of services--sidewalks, transit routes and water lines work best when they dont have to cross miles of underdeveloped, user-sparse land.  thats what a UGB is supposed to promote.turning CH/C roads into freeways subsidizes sprawl.

I started to say twice a day but then it occurred to me that some of them probably just drive up and down 15-501 to UNC for work and then take Smith Level Rd to Carrboro on occassion. 

At a presentation of a similar proposal about ten years ago at Carrboro Town Hall a DOT engineer stated quite directly that the purpose of the widening of this limited section of SLR was ultimately to be part of a commuter expressway link from Briar Chapel and other N. Chatham residential developments to Carolina North. Though he did not complete the picture it is hard to imagine any continuation of this link other than via S. & N. Greensboro St. and Estes extension.

As bizarre and destructive as this concept might appear it seems that they have not let it go.


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