Blair L. Pollock: Pipeilines and bike lanes

January 7, 2014 

If someone were building a $28 million or perhaps $65 million project through your neighborhood, you might be curious.

As the trenches and long pieces of green metal pipes appear then disappear underground along Eubanks Road, Millhouse Road and Mount Sinai Road and points north, I got interested.

Turns out the Public Service Company of North Carolina (dba SCANA aka the gas compan)y is installing what they’re calling the Durham Loop, a 12-inch diameter line 27 miles long primarily to fire Duke University’s power plants that have converted from coal to gas to reduce pollution and increase energy efficiency. Along the way, that gas could theoretically become available to some of us residential rural customers too, but not anytime soon it turns out.

I like natural gas for cooking, heating and water heating. Any cook prefers gas. It’s cheaper than electricity too. Pipelines don’t go out during storms. Air blowing from a gas furnace is warmer than what our heat pump delivers. Too bad I don’t have pipeline gas. We fitted the stove for propane a few years back but water and air are still heated with electricity. In 1974, Amory Lovins likened that approach to “cutting butter with a chainsaw” where a nuclear reactor or coal-fired powered boiler a hundred miles away burns at thousands of degrees to make water into super-heated steam to spin a turbine to make electricity, then sent through miles of wires to raise my water or air temperature fifty or sixty degrees. It makes more sense to create the heat a lot closer to where it’s needed.

The gas company would not tell me the exact cost of the this multi-million dollar line scheduled to run within a few hundred yards of my home, though God knows why as they’re a monopoly, so I guessed at the cost using published data. In that same call, their spokeslady also told me the gas will likely not be of any use to me and my neighbors in the near term, if ever. Apparently they didn’t find it cost-effective to install what they call “farm taps” that might have readily enabled smaller side pipelines as they build the line. A salesman is headed to my neighborhood next week to assess demand, but on the phone he didn’t seem optimistic nor did the spokeslady, though everyone was very respectful and tolerant of me. It will take weeks for them to do the analysis even with all the information that’s now easily available from tax records – how big our houses are and how we heat our homes and water – there is no ready answer on this question.

Defeated on that front, I asked my next question. The pipeline appears to be being built mostly alongside the road, so, was there any coordination between the gas line construction and NC DOT plans for roadway widening, especially to include possible bike lanes or wide outside lanes or whatever the current term is for “bike lane.” The short answer is no. The longer answer from the gas company is that they did not look into this because that’s not what they do. They said I should ask NCDOT. I did.

In my conversation with the regional DOT engineer I noted that that Eubanks Road, a key part of a possible future bikeable road network for Chapel Hill, Carrboro and southern Orange was repaved and widened a bit within the past two years and surely the pipeline had been in design by that point. The engineer patiently pointed out to this layman what a bad idea it was to consider building a bike lane right as the gas line was being constructed. So the layman asks “What about coordinating contracting with all the large equipment already there to dig and re-grade the roadway edge’s right-of-way and move the drainage ditches now to accommodate a future bike lane? I was told that this simply would not work and no bike lane was planned and why didn’t I ask the town.

Looking at the Durham Chapel Hill Metropolitan Planning Organization’s voluminous list of pedestrian and bike projects for Orange and Durham through 2040 ( bit.ly/1ex5CaL) it’s true, there is no immediate plan for a wide outside lane along Eubanks Road. Sure enough, three separate Eubanks Road wide outside lane projects are listed. One for Chapel Hill’s 1.4 miles and two for Carrboro’s jurisdiction, first 0.9 miles then a separate 0.4 miles, but there’s no timetable, no funding and no priority. The current Chapel Hill bike plan doesn’t have it either. Eubanks isn’t on the town’s list, not even on their map. I went to the planning meeting and asked. Only ‘Share the Road’ signs actually exist. Even bike-friendly I impatiently swerved around a cyclist last month rather than share the road. He was not pleased.

If you drive through the northeast Orange countryside some fine winter’s day, you’ll come upon pieces of the gas pipeline’s segmented construction along Mount Sinai Road then north along Murphy School Road and into the deep country of Schley, St. Mary’s and Pleasant Green Road. What a great set of bike routes that would make. Coordinating a widened outside lane with the 27 miles of gas pipelines to create a set of safe and scenic biking opportunities through this most lovely part of Orange County with its rolling hills, past Eno River State Park, expanses of pasture and stately homes would be a great way to promote bike tourism. We’re becoming an endurance sports mecca and there’s an explosion of interest in promoting bicycling for health and transportation; we should not miss out.

After 30 years of regular cycle commuting, I gave it up when I moved out of town. Inhibited by the narrow winding path of upper Millhouse Road leading into the heavy truck and bus traffic on Eubanks with no shoulder to veer on to, I’ve quit. My bike with its now sadly flat tires gathers cobwebs and dust in the corner of the garage, reminding me of when two wheels carried me quietly and safely to work. The 2.2. mile drive down Blackwood Mountain to the work place on Eubanks is my new normal. Maybe I’ll start again when they finish the bike lanes and gas lines.

Contact Blair Pollock at blairlpollock@gmail.com.

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