Road widening project to slow traffic

Dec. 07, 2012 @ 09:34 PM

A $4.6 million road-widening project is expected to cause major headaches for motorists around UNC this spring, but traffic slowdowns could begin as early as next week.

That’s when work crews will begin removing and clearing of trees along a section of N.C. 86/South Columbia Street from Purefoy Road to Manning Drive to smooth the way for the road widening. The road work will have its greatest impact on motorists next year from April to September.

Next week, possible lane closures along the 0.8-mile sections of N.C, 86/South Columbia will occur from 9 a.m., to 4 p.m. State transportation officials say there may be intermittent stops for traffic and pedestrians if a tree limb or debris poses a safety hazard.

“We’re going to circulate traffic as best we can, and if we don’t need to close a lane we won’t,” said Chris Kirkman, a resident engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation.

The work next week will involve crews selectively clearing trees to accommodate the wider roadway, new sidewalks and bike lanes. Any trees cleared as part of the project will be sold to a local sawmill to be made into lumber.

Kirkman said it’s fortunate that the removal of the trees coincides with the winter break for UNC students. He said there will be fewer automobiles traveling the route.

“Weather permitting we’re going to do as much of the tree removal as we can during that time,” Kirkman said.

Plans call for the 0.8-mile section of N.C. 86/South Columbia to be widened to include a center turn lane and bus pullouts, which state transportation officials say will improve safety and traffic flow in the area.

The project, awarded to Burlington-based Triangle Grading & Paving Inc., will also improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclist with the added sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides of the road.

While crews will try to limit street closures in the early phase of the project, the southbound lane is scheduled to close in April and traffic will be diverted to Manning Drive.

That will create major problems for Chapel Hill Transit, which will be forced to reroute about 600 daily trips along one of the busiest transit corridors in the state.

Rerouting buses will be expensive, and detours will impact other routes, likely causing delays.

Transit officials say the cost could climb to nearly $2 million before the project’s scheduled completion date, June 2014.

“This is a very important area in terms of the number of routes that operate there and the number of people we carry,” said Brian Litchfield, interim director of Chapel Hill Transit.

The cost of rerouting and making schedule adjustments for the nine routes that operate along South Colombia and Manning drive could range from $850,000 to $1.5 million. And to maintain the current frequency of service by adding more buses, the cost would be in the range of $1.25 million to $2 million.

“The $2 million assumes we put additional buses out there to maintain the frequency of the routes that are currently there,” Litchfield said.

He said the unbudgeted impact for the Town of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC, all of which partner to operate the transit system, could range from $350,000 to $500,000 for the current fiscal year.    

He said the transit partners plan to ask the NCDOT for help in reducing the cost to the partners.