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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."