News: CJ Exclusives

Interest Group Blocks Road Expansion

Hillsborough case illustrates complexity of highway-construction process

Road building is rarely a simple process. The reality is that aside from traffic considerations, environmental concerns, historical preservation issues, the existence of minority communities, land-use planning, and local politics are all factors that influence where, when, and if a new road is built.

A long-simmering case in Hillsborough demonstrates the complex interplay involved. Hillsborough is a historic town of 5,500 inhabitants and the seat of Orange County. While Hillsborough enjoys excellent connections to both the Triangle and Triad — it sits at the intersection of Inter-states 40 and 85 — getting through town can be difficult. There is only a single, two-lane street that runs north-south through town, Churton Street, and it is heavily congested.

To address the problem, the N.C. Department of Transportation wants to build a new four-lane road, called the Elizabeth Brady Road Extension, to take traffic off Churton and other streets in Hillsborough’s central business district. The idea of extending Elizabeth Brady Road is not new. A 1987 Hillsborough thoroughfare study recommended the road be built from 2000 to 2005.

If a local historical conservation-environmental group has its way though, the expansion will never be built. By broadly defining its interests, the group is hoping to stop the road.

While the purpose of the Elizabeth Brady Road Extension is simple enough — reducing traffic congestion, improving the level of service, and improving safety along Churton and other Hillsborough streets — as the saying goes, the devil is in details. A N.C. Department of Transportation planning document lists a number of issues and concerns in siting the road:

• Downtown historic district and other historic resources;

• The [proposed alignment in the state’s Transportation Improvement Plan] goes through a former NASCAR race site [the Occoneechee Orange Speedway] that is on the National Register of Historic Places;

• Ayr Mount, a NRHP-listed home site, is located adjacent to the proposed project corridor;

• There is a high probability that there are Native American and 18th and 19th century archaeological sites within the project areas;

• The project is located in the Eno River basin, a unique and sensitive ecosystem;

• Concern for impacts to residents and businesses within the project area.

“This project has a tad more [complications] than average,” said Vince Rhea, the N.C. Department of Transportation engineer overseeing the project.

The N.C. DOT originally identified six possible routes for the Elizabeth Brady Road extension. Three remain under consideration:

• A 1.3-mile, $12 million alignment that would include a new bridge over the Eno River, run over the old speedway, and require that four homes or businesses be relocated.

• A 1.4-mile, $14.1 million alignment that avoids the race track. This option would still build a new bridge over the river and require that 14 homes or businesses be relocated.

• A 1.9-mile, $17 million alignment that avoids the race track and building a new bridge over the river. This route also involves relocating three homes or businesses. Aside from the higher price, this option has another drawback; it provides the least reduction in congestion of the alternatives still being considered.

A final option, which is always considered in the road construction decision-making process, is to do nothing. Rhea notes that even then, the state would likely eventually do minor upgrades, such as installing turn lanes to existing streets, to reduce congestion in Hillsborough.

“It will be a matter of trying to design for the least overall impacts within the framework we have to legally work in,” Rhea said.

The state’s road construction plan has design work on the extension beginning this fiscal year. Right-of-way purchases are scheduled to begin in fiscal 2007-08. Construction should start two years later.

The DOT is conducting an environmental impact study that examines the options in detail. Rhea said that, barring unforeseen discoveries during the EIS, the routing over the former Occoneechee Orange Speedway site will ultimately be rejected. Road building rules require that roads not disturb historical sites unless there is no viable alternative. Both of the other routes qualify as viable alternatives.

The EIS should be completed this winter.

Even that outcome, however, does not satisfy Bill Crowther, the overseer of Ayr Mount and the adjacent speedway site. Both properties are owned by the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust and with day-to-day activities managed by Preservation North Carolina.

Crowther notes that much effort has gone into creating three miles of trails through the speedway property. Even routing the Elizabeth Brady Road Extension around, rather than through, the speedway, would destroy the ambiance of the walks, he said. This possible route around the track would also destroy a natural habitat area that has significant mountain laurel growth.

In the longer term, Crowther hopes to see the trail network extend all the way to the Eno River State Park. He said four-lane highways are inconsistent with such nature trails.

“A four-lane new facility crossing of the Eno is unprecedented in that there are eight two-lane bridges already,” he said. “Creating a new facility through parkland is uncalled for.”

Crowther’s view is not shared by all Hillsborough residents, many of whom are tired of sitting in traffic on Churton Street. Ken Chavious, a former City Council member, is one such proponent of the Elizabeth Brady Road Extension.

Chavious said the extension has been rated as the town’s top road priority. And what particularly riles Chavious and other proponents is the size of the two historic properties. Ayr Mount proper is 50 acres, while the speedway property, which was designated a historic property only in 2002, is an additional 260 acres. Crowther’s ultimate vision would create an even larger nature preserve.

“Hillsborough is a loser if this isn’t built” Chavious said.

Michael Lowrey is associate editor of Carolina Journal.