Kirk Ross: The road less widened

September 20, 2013 

Kirk Ross


If the trip into town via Smith Level Road and Columbia Street has been a source of frustration, I can only say that you should have seen what was originally planned.

What is happening on the twin southern entryways to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro metroplex may seem like a mess, but the projects are two of the best examples of what happens when the voters put some dedicated, determined and thoughtful folks in office.

At one time, the DOT, bless its heart, wanted to drop four travels lanes and clear a lot of elbow room on those hills. The university leadership led by UNC Health Care was all for the idea. But over the years, a majority of the people elected to the boards of Carrboro and Chapel Hill fought for a different idea. And fought. And fought.

The battle royale for sidewalks, bike lanes and a three-lane configuration on those roads lasted for three decades. It was never an easy negotiation. In the case of Columbia Street, the university was almost able to cut a backroom deal for the extra-wide widening. Carrboro’s standoff with the DOT over Smith Level left that road unimproved and practically shoulderless for far too long.

Although the wait for the improvements was frustrating, the end result makes even more sense today than when the early advocates of transportation sanity started pushing for strategies to reduce the number of cars flowing into the downtowns.

The saga of the two roads is a reminder of the long-term impact local leaders can have if they posses that rare combination of an ability to turn ideas into practical solutions and the backbone to see them through. The final design is not universally liked. I’ve never seen a road project that was. But at some point a deal had to be cut.

What happened with the road projects is a reminder that our elected leaders are not the sole decision makers in the things that affect our lives. Too often local elections focus just on the local agenda almost as if it happens in a vacuum. If the recent session of the General Assembly hasn’t reminded us that local agendas can get caught up in state politics I don’t know what will.

This fall, the voters in Chapel Hill and Carrboro will choose the people who will face a lot of hard-to-solve challenges. If you’re not a regular follower of the issues it can be hard to discern the differences. No one ever runs promising to lower the quality of life or offering anything but common sense ideas.

The difficulty in sifting out the best of the bunch is why so many folks are turned off by local elections and leave it up to the small percent of the citizenry who are more actively engaged to choose the local leadership. To me that’s exactly the wrong time to sit it out since election season is one time you can be assured officials are listening. You won’t have leaders that reflect the community if most of the community is a no-show.

For the past couple of election cycles I’ve had the good fortune to moderate online debates in local races hosted by, an online forum for progressive views. This year the debates are Oct. 6 for Carrboro and Oct. 13 for Chapel Hill.

Given the climate, I’ll be looking for some answers on how the candidates will deal with a vastly different world in Raleigh as well as how they’ll work to resolve some of the festering issues in the two towns.

If you have some thoughts on good questions to ask the candidates please send them on either through email or as comments on the CHN or OrangePolitics sites. It’s always a good idea to figure out what folks are thinking before they get elected to office.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at

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