Terri Buckner: Big box at Obey Creek would require traffic fix

September 16, 2013 

Terri Buckner


Not surprisingly, the main topic of discussion at the Obey Creek Compass committee meetings has been traffic, or more specifically, traffic congestion.

Many of us spend our mornings sitting on 15-501 waiting to get into town as the highway shrinks from four lanes to two. And we’ve all seen the traffic backed up along Fordham during morning and evening rush hours, before and after UNC events, and while parents wait to pick up or drop off their children at St. Thomas More School. Hopefully, the South Columbia Street improvements will help this situation, as will UNC Healthcare’s decision to move their administrative and support services away from Manning Drive.

But neither of those changes will alleviate the problems, and any improvements will be immediately lost if the community does indeed decide to support a big box store at Obey Creek.

Despite the known problems, there are not currently any plans to make corrections. In fact, it could take from seven to 10 years for N.C. Department of Transportation funding to be made available. At that time, solutions such as adding travel lanes or turning 15-501 into a Super Street would be considered – solutions that accommodate fast-moving vehicles.

Neither that time frame nor the solutions are acceptable to many Compass committee members. They want bicycle and pedestrian connectivity between Obey Creek and Southern Village, which means either slowing traffic down on 15-501 or building a bridge or tunnel across or over. DOT classifies 15-501 as a highway, so slowing traffic down is not an option. Building a bridge would be expensive for the developer, but remains an option. A tunnel would require that 15-501 be shut down during construction which just isn’t feasible.

So where does that leave us? The much-quoted Public Policy Polling poll claims that 56 percent of voters in Chapel Hill would like to see a Target at Obey Creek. Start with poor-performing roadways and intersections and add upwards of 700 new trips at peak travel times, and you have an even bigger mess.

Unfortunately, the technical team of consultants doesn’t provide any assistance. Its technical report states “While the design of the Obey Creek site cannot, by itself, solve the inordinately high levels of traffic congestion caused by its suburban context, it can be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.” That’s an ideological claim not supported by reality. If traffic cannot be slowed down and double the traffic is added, the problems are just going to be exacerbated. Because let’s all admit up front that very few of us will walk, ride our bikes, or take a bus to shop at a Target.

Most southern Chapel Hill/Orange County residents acknowledge that development is going to occur on Obey Creek and that we will all benefit from such development. But the type and scale of that development need to take into consideration existing constraints, like these traffic challenges. East-West Partners acknowledges the problems that will be created and has promised to make improvements on the sections of 15-501 fronting its property. Unfortunately, the area of impact for the development extends well beyond that short section of highway to the surrounding areas of Fordham Boulevard and Smith Level Road which is too often used as a cut through to avoid the problems on 15-501.

It’s a work in progress, and I, for one, am encouraged by the level of thoughtful discussion among the committee members. The next step in the process is a public information session, scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18, at Mary Scroggs Elementary School. Come on out and share your ideas and concerns. And please, bring us some creative suggestions for how to address the traffic problems!

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