Drive along the four-lane U.S. 64 highway in Chatham County, and you'll see farmhouses and fields hemming the highway and intersecting with bucolic side roads such as Big Woods, Seaforth, Pea Ridge and Beaver Creek. Small produce stands, such as Jean's Berry Patch at the corner of U.S. 64 and N.C. 751, crop up near the road during the summer.
Anchoring these intersections are gas stations that sell bait and tackle to fishermen headed for Jordan Lake and frozen treats to boaters sunburned and weary after a day on the water. As you head west toward Pittsboro, you pass a thick stand of pines and hardwoods and can occasionally glimpse a plane bound for the airport—a silver splash reflecting off the lake.
Now imagine U.S. 64 as a blur, a widened, limited-access expressway designed to cannonball you from Raleigh to Charlotte. Many of the farmhouses, fields and gas stations are gone, and there's no time to stop by—nor an easy entrance to—the lake.
That's the long-range plan of the N.C. Department of Transportation, which plans to transform 19 miles of U.S. 64, 10 of them in Chatham County, into a high-speed route. And that's the fear of Chatham County commissioners and concerned citizens who say the economic and environmental impacts of the expansion could irreparably harm the county and Jordan Lake.
Yet even after five years of study, the project, now in Phase 2, still contains many unknowns. The cost is projected to be $410 million—but given the history of cost overruns, that's a significant underestimate. The state doesn't know how it will pay for the expansion, nor has it grappled with federal environmental regulations governing Jordan Lake.
"This is long-range planning, and we need to educate people on that. Publishing this study does not mean it will happen tomorrow, or even 10 years from now," said Dan Thomas, an engineer with NCDOT's planning branch.
That said, Chatham County Commissioners, who oppose the project but have been largely excluded from the decision making, question the wisdom of this long-range plan. It leaves many unanswered questions, yet if approved by NCDOT, it would have a significant impact, tying up the county's land-use and transportation plans for the next 25 years while altering the future of northeastern Chatham County.
There is a 14,000-acre obstacle to the U.S. 64 expansion: Jordan Lake, which, although polluted, is a source of drinking water for several Triangle communities. It is also an important recreational resource and a home to several rare and threatened species.
However, NCDOT's plan doesn't deal with how to expand the highway beyond the bridge that currently crosses the waterway. "Addressing the lake will be a future issue that we won't tackle for a good while," said Peter Trencansky, senior engineer with the N.C. United Research Services Corporation, a consultant on the project.
That's the problem. By the time NCDOT tackles the environmental issues, it could have invested too much time and money into the project to back out. What could be a deal breaker could actually be a deal maker.
The federal and state environmental permitting processes, legally required for projects that use federal funding or affect federal lands (Jordan Lake is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), take years of study and public comment. But these processes can't begin until the project gets funding—and currently there is none.
Chatham County also has rules about protected, or buffer, areas around the lake.
Haw Riverkeeper Elaine Chiosso said an expansion will impact Jordan Lake and the creeks that feed it. Water quality, which according to federal standards is already impaired because of pollution in some parts of the lake, could suffer due to runoff from construction and traffic. "I can say that the Haw River Assembly will be opposed to expansion," she said. "It will entail a very expensive and environmentally challenging building of new bridges across Jordan Lake. I fear this cannot be done without harming water quality, aquatic habitat and recreation during its construction. We should be looking to maximize new public transportation rather than widening highways."
Thomas Gremillion, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that building limited-access highways can encourage careful land-use planning, but until NCDOT begins an environmental assessment it would be difficult to gauge the project's impacts.
The only known impact is the closure of side roads that access Jordan Lake. Only park and emergency vehicles could reach the lake directly via the highway. Motorists would have to navigate U-turns to reach the few access roads.
A lack of accessibility worries Chatham County Commissioner Sally Kost, who said the county could further benefit economically from the recreational uses of the lake. "Is there something we could build along the 64 corridor that would take advantage of the people coming to the lake?" she said. "We don't know yet, but the freeway would wipe out any opportunity we might have for benefiting from the lake."
Jordan Lake has cost Chatham County in the past. After at least two decades of legal wrangling, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flooded 21 square miles of privately owned tobacco and cotton fields to build the lake, which was filled in 1982.
"We have lost a billion dollars of property value to the federal government," Chatham County Commissioner George Lucier said, "and I think we've given a lot to the regional good."
As designed, the new highway would make it difficult for motorists to reach access roads that lead to small businesses. "We don't see the benefit to us for travelers to get through Chatham County as fast as they can," said Commissioner Lucier. "We're trying to expand our economic development, and encouraging people to pass the county does not help us."
Chatham County is looking to U.S. 64 to help the county's economy. Although the county's Commercial Corridor Ordinance discourages strip malls along the highway, it does encourage commercial development at certain locations. For example, commissioners have approved an industrial park at the intersection of N.C. 751 and U.S. 64.
In a letter written last year to NCDOT, Chatham commissioners recommended halting the project because it would hurt future commercial development. "Chatham County desires to bring people into the County and not serve as a convenient bypass of the County for traffic to move onward to the west," the letter read.
State transportation officials responded, arguing that the expressway would actually "enhance the economic development potential for the counties and communities along the corridor." However, on its website NCDOT acknowledges that the viability of small businesses could be harmed—while large retailers such as Walmart could flourish. "How a business would be affected by a reduction in pass-by traffic can vary according to the type of business," the website reads. "A business that motorists go to regardless of the route, like a big box retailer or sit-down restaurant, is often unaffected or positively affected by reduced traffic. In contrast, a convenience- or impulse-type business, such as a gas station, relies on pass-by traffic and may be adversely affected."
These convenience businesses are precisely what Chatham's Commercial Corridor Ordinance wants to encourage while retaining the county's rural appeal.
The expansion would require the state to buy private property at each intersection. The Wilsonville intersection at Farrington and Beaver Creek roads would lose its two gas stations, according to the draft study. Closer to Pittsboro, a gas station, mini-storage facility and a house would be demolished at the intersection of Mt. Gilead Church and North Pea Ridge roads. North Pea Ridge Road is the quickest route to a Jordan Lake beach and picnic area, which also has a boat launch.
At the Big Woods and Seaforth roads, the Windfall Development boasting the largest estate home sites in Chatham County—starting at $800,000. Windfall Vice President Jonna Birtcher wouldn't comment on the project specifically, but she did say Windfall would lose five developed lots when freeway construction begins.
"The benefit of a plan like this is that now in 2010, you know the vision for U.S. 64, and you can start looking at that and making modifications," said Trencansky. "If you are a developer, you start thinking about the provisions or infrastructures you'd need to allow for the plan."
Chatham County doesn't yet have a transportation plan—it recently announced appointments to its first transportation advisory board—which puts the county at a disadvantage in dealing with NCDOT, said Chatham County Commissioner Tom Vanderbeck, vice-chair of the Rural Transportation Advisory Committee.
Vanderbeck called the expressway expansion "unsustainable:" "If we keep growing the same model of more lanes more vehicles on the road, how will we control air pollution?"
However, Trencansky said, U.S. 64 can be "saved," although it's unclear that the existing highway needs rescuing. "Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, that corridor is gone forever and you can't get it back," he said, "so what we want to do is save corridors before they have become unfixable."
A lack of funding might delay the NCDOT plan, but the project will not be scrapped, transportation officials say. The Wake County portion of the U.S. 64 expansion would be funded first, but Trencansky said work in Chatham County "could begin right away if privately funded or locally funded."
Before the state applies for funding, it must complete and approve the corridor study in order to increase its chances of receiving the money. "If you know funding is going to be tight, it helps your funding application process if you've done studies and have good cost data," he said.
But NCDOT's recent history in Chatham County is spotty.
"The ironic thing about this is DOT is broke. They don't have the money," Commissioner Kost said. "They canceled a project they had promised in Moncure because they don't have the money. That was a couple hundred thousand dollars. Where the heck will they get the funding for U.S. 64?"
Chatham officials' input has been limited, largely because the county has no representation on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO). (Northern Chatham is part of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro MPO, but according to the group's map, its jurisdiction doesn't extend south to U.S. 64.) Nonetheless, CAMPO, with NCDOT, has the authority to approve the Chatham portion of the plan.
Chatham County is not alone in opposing the expansion, but its objections seem to carry less weight. Last year, Wake County citizens successfully fought the state's plan for an elevated freeway across U.S. 64 in Cary and Apex. The state modified the plan, replacing the elevated freeway with a bypass at U.S. 1 and I-540.
"The DOT seems to have spent a lot of time in Cary and Apex listening to the concerns of those residents, and I think that's good," said Commissioner Lucier, "but at the same time the road runs through Chatham too. Maybe we are not as big or as powerful as a jurisdiction as that area, but we deserve to be heard."
In their diminished role, Chatham County Commissioners have requested changes to the plan, including an assessment of the impact of a limited-access expressway on fire and police vehicles and school buses. Those changes were ignored. "We told the DOT this is our stand," Kost said. "The DOT will do what they want anyway. And I'm OK with them trying to find another route to Charlotte, but did they consider other options?"
Ironically, NCDOT just unveiled new midday train service between Raleigh and Charlotte starting June 5, increasing the daily number of round trips to three. A one-way trip between the cities takes three hours. Trencansky said the state discussed train service, but Chatham's low population density, even with its projected growth, excluded rail.
Commissioners' refusal to capitulate to the state raises questions about the project's future, but the state likely will win control of its road.
"I don't know who carries the biggest stick and decides what happens, but I do believe DOT wants to work with Chatham," Trencansky said. "You don't want to walk around like you have omnipotent powers, but DOT won't just let U.S. 64 go. They have a significant investment in the highway."