Chatham County Commissioners have an additional 60 days to comment on a draft study report on the proposed U.S. 64 expansion. While the N.C. Department of Transportation refused to extend the comment period, which ends June 30, to everyone, it is giving the commissioners until Sept. 1 to chime in on the controversial project.
NCDOT and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) have developed a plan to transform 19 miles of U.S. 64, 10 of them in northeastern Chatham County and nine in western Wake, into a limited-access expressway. State and regional transit leaders say it will provide another fast route from Raleigh to Charlotte and alleviate congestion on Interstates 85 and 40.
However, Chatham County officials are concerned about the economic and environmental impacts of the expansion. For example, U.S. 64 currently crosses Jordan Lake; the highway's expansion would significantly affect the waterway and its sensitive natural habitats. Jordan Lake is a source of drinking water for the fast-growing areas of Cary, Apex, Morrisville, northern Chatham County and the Wake County portion of Research Triangle Park.
"Only very minor changes were made in the Chatham section of the report," says Loyse Hurley, president of Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities, which also asked for a 60-day extension. However, the group will not be allowed to comment to the NCDOT beyond the end of the month.
Sally Kost, chairwoman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, noted many unanswered questions in the report. In addition, she says, commissioners need more time for the newly formed Transportation Advisory Board and other boards, including environmental review, planning and economic development, to study and provide feedback on the report.
Chatham Commissioners have openly opposed the project since May 2009. Yet, because of jurisdictional issues—the Chatham portion of the expansion is not under any regional transit authority that would include county officials—they have been largely excluded from NCDOT's decision-making process.
The plan contains several gaps in information. For example, federal environmental regulations, required for expanding the highway over Jordan Lake, were omitted.
Chatham County officials are also unsatisfied with how the plan addresses emergency response times, since there will be limited access to the highway from secondary roads. The plan calls forfive emergency access points along the 10-mile stretch. In a May 2009 letter to NCDOT, Chatham County Commissioners said they are especially concerned about access for the North Chatham Fire Department, which serves Apex and Jordan Lake. The intention is to connect the North Chatham Fire Department station to the highway via a service road at Farrington Road and U.S. 64 However, it is unclear how that will affect response times.
NCDOT did not examine this issue, even though Chatham Commissioners asked for a study of emergency response times in their May 2009 letter.
"Our previously stated concerns regarding emergency response were ignored," Kost says.
Dan Thomas, an engineer with NCDOT's planning branch, disagrees. "Emergency response (including fire) has been raised," he says. "Where superstreets have been implemented in other areas of the state, this has not been an issue."
Commissioners and concerned citizens also want more analysis of the evacuation routes—U.S. 64 is a primary one—from the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant.
Hurley takes issue with the limited access to the U.S. 64 evacuation route. "How does one evacuate quickly and promptly?" she wonders.
Thomas says the U.S. 64 corridor study is consistent with existing evacuation route plans. "We believe the improved mobility would actually improve evacuation," he says.
And while the U.S. 64 report projects that population growth in western Wake and northeastern Chatham will justify the expressway, mass transit has been ruled out for the area because there aren't enough people currently living along the Chatham County portion of U.S. 64.
"If the vehicular volume is too high, thereby requiring this project, how can it be too low for considering of a rail system?" Hurley says. She also criticizes the absence of any park-and-ride stops within the plan, which "automatically rules bus service out by design."
Citizens in Cary and Apex, where nine miles of expansion are planned, have formed Save64.org, which also wants the public comment period extended.
"For many in our area, a main concern is that NCDOT views U.S. 64 as a thoroughfare in which the efficient flow of traffic is the main objective. We see it as our 'Main Street,'" says Dan Epstein, spokesman for Save64.org. "For many years, development was encouraged along U.S. 64 in the Apex/ Cary area. Our students go to Apex High, the Eva Perry Library. Our churches, the stores we shop at and the neighborhoods we live in are all built alongside U.S. 64. We feel communities must have the right to preserve and to protect what has been built and established."
In Chatham County alone, the long-term portion of the study calls for the relocation of 11 residences, 12 businesses and one church.
"We are concerned about the impact on property owners, and especially for the existing businesses which would be destroyed," Kost says.
Kost says Chatham County cannot approve a plan that limits the county's land-use planning and economic development. "If the idea is to have a corridor from Charlotte to Raleigh, I suggest they start on the other end in Charlotte, where Highway 49 through the Concord area is experiencing growth with strip malls popping up and traffic congestion already problematic," she says.