Inching toward connectivity

Merritt Crossing, updated 2013

Yesterday I attended an informational meeting about the proposed Tanyard Branch greenway and bridge that the Town of Chapel Hill is planning to build from the end of McMasters Street (near Northside Elementary) to the other side of Bolin Creek, ending at Jay Street, which is a dirt road that connects to Village Drive. (Tanyard Branch is the name of the stream that comes in from Carrboro and feeds into Bolin Creek at Umstead Park.)

This is a project that I personally stand to benefit from greatly. My comment from a year ago on being districted in the Northside Elementary walkzone explains that this will change our daily walk to school from 1.2 miles up a steep hill to .5 miles through the woods. This small greenway will also eventually connect to Phase III of Chapel Hill Bolin Creek Greenway, which will bring the path from MLK to Umstead Park. UNC is also creating a "Campus-to-Campus Connector" from Carolina North which will run paralell to the railroad tracks and just feet from Village Drive. This Tanyard Branch connection will someday make it much easier for people to get to central Chapel Hill from downtown, which is great.

However, I still have mixed feelings about this project. For one thing, it only barely seems to meet the school system's requirements for walk zones. (See Board of Education Walk Zone Abstract for 9/6 (PDF).) My son will have to cross Village Drive and walk in the middle of a road, some of which is unpaved, to get to the new bridge.

View Merritt Railroad crossing in a larger map

But more importantly, it continues to leave important gaps in connectivity in our in-town neighborhood. We are so close to everything, and yet so far away. Thanks to the unfortunate and unfair closure of the Merritt Crossing between Village Drive and Estes Park apartments, there is still no way for the hundreds of people living in apartments and townhomes just south of Estes Drive Extension to get between Chapel Hill and Carrboro. It seems to me that Chapel Hill is uninterested in our connectivity when we want to connect to Carrboro, even though that is the only place I could feasibly walk to for groceries and many other needs.

If the Town would take this Tanyard Branch crossing a little further by making Jay Street pedestrian-friendly, and offering a safe way to get along Estes Drive between Village Drive and the Wilson Park Multi-use Path, then we would really start to see a useful network taking shape.

As a side note, can anyone explain why local activist Julie McClintock is so opposed to Greenways? She opposed Carrboro's Bolin Creek Greenway tooth and nail, even pushing out the co-founder of Friends of Bolin Creek over their disagreement - and last night she found nothing but fault with this small project. She also seemed horrified that Chapel Hill would be continuing with it's long-planned Phase III of the Bolin Creek greenway. Greenways help people connect with nature and give us ways to get around without cars. I understand they're not perfect, but it seems like most self-described environmentalists would be pretty supportive of them. As far as I can tell, Julie never met a greenway she didn't hate. 


Johnny, in his role at NC Botanical Garden and thus "trustee" (or whatever the official title is) of the easement on many properties along Morgan Creek between the Gardens and Merritt's Pasture (including mine) used to have a strong stand that he didn't want people using the easement (including land owned by UNC on the south side of the creek) for recreation, as that would damage the creek and flora/fauna along it.  But recently, he has softened (in my words) as the need to encourage people to connect to nature and thus value it overall is more critical.  Having public support for serious policies that benefit all nature can be enhanced through greenways.  It's been interesting to watch Johnny's change in the neighborhood emails on this subject, and I think I understand his point and why he changed it. While I'm writing, on the subject of walk zone -- in the time I've been on the board, it hasn't been clear to me that there are clear-cut standards.  Sometimes, it seems to come down to a political judgement (is the neighborhood advocating for being a walk zone? Are they doing so just to avoid redistricting? Are they split in their opinions?).  In your case, your personal advocacy was probably part of the calculation for including in Northside's walk zone. These decisions aren't set in stone (we revisited Elliot Woods last year for example), so feel free to continue advocating for how best to serve students in your neighborhood.-James

I really wish the school board would define the conditions for walk zones so that the towns (and citizens) could plan what needs to happen. I tried repeatedly to get the school board and the Carrboro Board of Alderman to have a joint meeting during the Smith Level Road planning process and I believe it was always the school board that refused. Like the town councils and zoning decisions, the school board appears to favor keeping vague rules in place so they can custom-make all decisions. It's still not clear whether all the work on SLR will expand the Carrboro High walk zone for kids living along Culbreth due to the roundabout. My understanding of the greenway issue isn't that Julie is opposed to greenways but that she is opposed to paved greenways that run along side any water body. I don't agree with her but I think that's her position. 

It'd be pretty difficult to define walk zones precisely due to the vagaries of traffic and safety. For example, I think the school board is right in not requiring that the entire route to the school have a sidewalk; while ideal, there are plenty of streets that have such low volumes, particularly in residential neighborhoods, that it's perfectly safe for students to walk on the road. Other streets might have slightly greater volumes but might have wide shoulders that provide an adequate margin of safety.

That said, it certainly appears that the school district could do better in making the standards less vague and (per Ruby's comment) participating more in the transportation process to make sure the school district's concerns are taken into account. One approach might be to create thresholds based on measured amounts of traffic and geometric criteria for routes along the path to the school, and the district might want to look into that if any other communities do so, Here's a resource (though somewhat dated) from North Carolina.

One thing I do take some issue with is the prohibition on crossing multi-lane highways. If they are signalized and designed properly,  there's no reason they can't be included in a walk zone. This street near my old place in Brookline MA has five lanes and a light-rail that runs down the middle, and many students K-8 walked across with the help of a crossing guard. NC54 at Glenwood isn't great, but it's only six lanes wide with adequately sized sidewalks and with appropriate pedestrian signal timing would be perfectly safe for schoolkids. Terri's point about the roundabouts is a good one, and the school board should provide some clarification about that point, and perhaps even contact NCDOT to discuss the issue of safe crossing for school-aged children.

I do not recall being invited to meet with the Carrboro BoA on this topic.  In fact, to my knowledge, the school board has never refused to meet with any public local governmental unit for any purpose, at least in the last 10 years.   I do recall discussion of how the SLR work would affect walk zones.  Staff recommended not making a decision until after the improvements were completed because it is not clear whether the roundabout would be a safe walking route.   Now that we have some experience with the roundabout on Weaver Dairy and Sage Roads (which seems relatively safe for high school schools to me, but perhaps not for elementary age students), it may be easier to predict how a RA on SLR should impact walk zones.   By state regulation, a walk zone can be no greater than 1.5 miles.  Within that distance, the administration uses several criteria, that are listed here, to recommend walk zones to the school board: If the towns want to expand walkability to schools, I think this gives quite a bit of guidance on how to make that happen.  Carrboro's Safe Routes to School program has been doing just that. 

My recollection is the same as Mike's.  The BOA has never proposed a joint meeting and neither has the School Board; certainly neither party has ever declined an invititation from the other.  I (and other BOA members) have from time to time had meetings with members of the School Board - particularly Mayor and School Board Chair.  Those meetings have always been congenial and have primarily been about school capacity and ways that the town can help reserve school sites in the future.Also, on a couple of occasions members of the School Board have come to BOA meetings to discuss issues related to Smith Level Road - particularly the roundabout. Also I can think of at least one occasion when the BOA sent members to a School Board meeting to discuss an issue of mutual concern.

I wrote to both the BOA and the School Board requesting the meeting. It was a school board member (no longer on the board) who said they weren't going to interfere in something that was the BOAs responsibility, implying that the SB simply works around whatever they are given instead of proactively seeking what is best for creating walk zones.

FYI, I didn't contact the school board until after I found out we were in the walk zone, so I had no part in lobbying for that. (Although it's likely that I mentioned how nice it would be to be able to walk to the new school in conversation.) I notice that the folks across Umstead in Bolinwood Apartments are not in the walk zone, but if we walk the official route to school we will be going right by them.At this point I am kind of agnostic about being in the walk zone. But ask me again in a year when it's not just theoretical anymore. 

When I moved back to Chapel Hill in 2011 I had high hopes that I would see Phase 3 of the Bolin Creek Trail completed in the time I was going to be here. I couldn't figure out why people were so opposed to what seems to be an obvious good: a bike- and pedestrian-friendly pathway that would connect Chapel Hill and Carrboro. While I pretty quickly figured out that Bolin Creek Phase 3 wouldn't happen anytime soon, I still hoped for the completion of Tanyard Branch connection which, while imperfect, would make it possible to walk from Carrboro to Foster's without facing the steep hill and traffic on Columbia/MLK.But, this, too, was too much to hope for. The planning process for even the smallest projects is much too complex in the U.S., and our legal system gives too much power to nearby property owners, neglecting the needs of the larger public. While Chapel Hill/Carrboro IS a pedestrian-friendly place to be, the city planners don't seem to be very concerned about making it better for pedestrians. N. Graham still doesn't have a sidewalk. Walking on Rosemary and E. Main in Carrboro is still an unpleasant experience, as pedestrians crowd the sidewalks so cars can have a four-lane (!) road to speed through the middle of town. I understand these things take time. But, having lived in cities where bicyclists, pedestrians, and urbanists were better organized (Baltimore, New York, DC) and able to push for modest, if transformative, improvements to road conditions, I think Chapel Hill/Carrboro still has a long way to go.  

Come take another look. West Main Street is now two lanes along its entire length.Sidewalks are ridiculously expensive to build and some of the expense is (as you imply) purely bureaucratic, but a lot of the expense is legitimate - you have to deal with stormwater problems, water lines, sewer lines, gas lines, phone cables, electrical lines, cable TV, private property rights, wheelchair accessibilty etc. etc. til you just can't believe it. All of that costs money and everything costs more than you would think. And takes longer to plan than you would think.But it is all just a question of political willpower. And that is something that the voters have some control over. Ask the candidates in public forums and don't take "Sidewalks are important" for an answer. We need elected officials who will go toe-to-toe with the NC Department of Transportation and refuse to take no for an answer.

I really like the work that's been done closer to Weaver Street. It's the four-lane section of E. Main St. (from the Rosemary/Franklin fork to Carr Mill Mall) that needs work. Maybe a "road diet," maybe a traffic circle for the Rosemary/Frankln fork, and, of course, a wider sidewalk.Perhaps Carrboro/Chapel Hill could institute, and enforce, a 20 mph speed limit? Too many drivers treat that section of Carrboro, and parts of Rosemary, as a speedway. A broader frustration with local politics in the U.S., is the absence of parties that give voters a real choice. For example, almost everyone in Carrboro/Chapel Hill is a Democrat, but some want a densely populated downtown, while others would prefer a low-density town that resists change and growth of all sorts. If I knew there was a candidate out there who was anti-sidewalk and anti-density, I'd surely vote, and organize, against them, but I don't know who they are. People tend to obscure their disagreements rather than staking out a distinct set of positions.

I'm still trying to figure out what happened to the proposal to pave the trail along Bolin Creek west of Estes.  Seems like a handful of vocal NIMBY-ers managed to squash the whole thing.  Do Carrboro's planners + aldermen have that weak of backbones?It's ridiculous that we don't have a reliable path of transport for bicyclists from Lake Hogan and the surroundings into town.  I lived in Davis, CA for 5 years and the paved greenways there were amazing.  Our town could be so much more, but we're letting the rich yuppies rule with their Bimmers. 

That would be Julie McClintock's doing. She has been an ardent opponent of that greenway (and all others, as far as I can tell) and seems to have endless time and energy to stop projects that she doesn't like (such as the Central West Study Area, most recently).  

What gives her the cred?  Even if she was a council member, she's just another one of us citizens now.  These folks will undoubtedly be the town's undoing when they realize they kept out all the well meaning developments while CVS and the likes power their way in instead.  Ugh.

I think it would be more fair to say that Julie feels she is prioritizing water quality/protection over greenways rather than saying she is opposed to all greenways. Water quality matters as do greenways. The question we have to address is how to manage both within the same project.

I don't buy the water quality argument.  The bolin creek trail in Carrboro is so compacted there's no difference between it as-is and it in a paved form.  In fact, if it was paved there would be runoff mitigation done at the same time that would improve it. I find it pitiful that a lot of the folks complaining about creating these greenways just convienently happen to live backing up to them.  News flash, folks, it ain't your property - it's all of ours.

The issue is more that there is no funding identified.  NCDOT requires that the great majority of all federal transportation dollars be spent on roads. Greenways can be built pretty much only through a program called SPTDA (which has a very small budget).  Every year we rank various bike/ped improvements in the the STP-DA funding pool.  Looking out across the next 5 fiscal years of STP-DA funding, there is a huge list of bike/ped improvements that are needed (South Greensboro Street, Estes Drive, Old Fayetteville, parts of West Main).  Even if all of those other projects were fully funded, it would take several years of STP-DA funding to build the greenway along Bolin Creek. In the context of this bleak funding environment, the discussion about whether to pave a trail along the creek has been on hold. 

Meanwhile, Phase 1A of the greenway (the Wilson Park Multi-use Path) was completed this year, and progress on Phase 1B (including segments near the Claremont neighborhood) is being made slowly.

Thank you for the insight Mark.  Sad that so much ends up being our state government screwing things up these days.  Keep fighting the good fight!

Sad to say, it's not just these days. The problems at NCDOT are bi-partisan. In no small part, the problem boils down to the excessive role that highway paving contractors etc. play in financing state-level candidates. Just take a look at some old posts from my NCDOT Scandal blog (which I desperately need to update). It's no exageration to say that in NC genuine corruption goes on on on on on on on . . . out the above link map for bike connectivity from Lake Hogan. The Aldermen voted for a compromise balancing biking and environmental interests.  The approved greenway plan connects Hogan Farms thru Claremont and then extends a paved path down to Bolin Creek and crosses it and then thru the upland woods to Chapel Hill High School and the planned bike lanes on Seawell Rd. I admit to spearheading the effort to get the campus to campus connector endorsed by UNC and both Chapel Hill and Carrboro and ensuring that it got on the MPO list of funded projects - but we all need to urge a higher funding priority for it.  Friends of Bolin Creek had good reasons for opposing the proposal to build a 40 ft swath and pavement right next to the section of Bolin Creek that flows through Carolina Forest, the Craig tract and the Adams Preserve -- a 325 acre jewel and a great urban forest:  protecting wildlife populations, not further degrading Bolin Creek (an impaired stream on EPA's list)  and keeping natural surfaces so rain water would soak in the ground instead of damaging structures downstream. There is a place for all types of greenways.  Unfortunately because of our traditional funding sources, we must use DOT standards when we accept their money so there is little flexibility in placing them in sensitive environmental areas. Julie McClintock

This is somewhat off topic, but related.  If we are going to consider schools and connectivity I always find it dissappointing that the 100's of students who live in Parkside (my neigborhood) and Larkspur who attend Smith Middle School and Chapel Hill High School have no safe way to bike to school.  It's only a 10-15 minute ride, all of it quite safe except for a 1000 ft stretch along Homestead Road from the end of Weaver Dairy Extension to Hearthstone Road.   If this section could have a bike path, many children would ride to school every day and this gap is so frustratingly short. Some of the kids in the neighborhood did manage to plot out a route through the trails in Carolina North forest but this has been blocked by construction now.If we ever want to become a truly bike and pedestrian friendly town we have to fix the easier situations like this one.

I have always asked about creating a better bike route to the schools. I had hopes that Carolina North would be the mechanism to do this but that hasn't happened. Having taught at CHHS for 19 years I know that some students biked to school almost every day. I would bike to work just a few times a month. (Once I was hit by a car on MLK Blvd while biking to work.) Slowly a shoulder is being created along Homestead but it is not very wide. We need to advocate for a  wided shoulder. It is scary at first, but I have found that drivers of the SUVs, cars and buses in that area are polite to cyclists on the roads near the schools.  For younger kids there needs to be a better network of sidewalks.Loren


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