BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for December 11, 2009
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East End Connector gets a regional branding push -- as it faces a new hurdle

If you're looking for a lesson in branding, you could do a lot worse than the Regional Transportation Alliance's new campaign to push for the East End Connector.

Wait, make that the Triangle Connector, as we learn from WRAL's reporting:

Hello_east_end_er_make_that_triangle_connector The Regional Transportation Alliance has a new top freeway priority in the Triangle for 2010 that would reduce travel time from Interstate 85 to Research Triangle Park.

The Triangle Connector to Interstate 85 would be the final piece of roadway that would create a stoplight-free connection from U.S. Highway 1 in southwest Wake County to I-85 in Research Triangle Park....

"It will allow the Triangle region as a whole – Raleigh, Cary, Chapel Hill, Research Triangle Park – to connect to Interstate 85," Joe Milazzo, executive director of the Regional Transportation Alliance, said.

What's in a name? Well, regional support, for one thing; the repositioning helps to show the road as a facility that doesn't just matter for Durham, but for the entire Triangle and beyond.

Less-reported but omnipresent in discussions these days of the East End Connector is why that matters.

Although the highway got support and funding from the Board of Transportation a few years back, even making it onto the draft Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) document that drives road priorities.

But all of that faces a data-driven analytical test in the halls of the NCDOT in 2010, as the department tries to unwind its old reputation for politically-driven decisions on what roads get built where with a new prioritization process.

It's ironic: for twenty years, Durham stands by as other communities take their first crack at Urban Loop dollars. And just when the BOT finally (with the help of Ken Spaulding) allocates funding to the project, NCDOT begins to unwind the admittedly-troubled way it makes decisions.

All of which makes the regional positioning more important than ever.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As important as the East End Connector is for improving the connectivity of RTP per se, and for providing support to urban Durham neighborhoods while speeding North Durham commute times -- from a regional perspective, it provides a major freeway connection straight from US 1 and the Sandhills to I-85 and points north.

The RTA's announcement at a luncheon this week that the EEC would be the top priority for the business transportation lobbying organization is good news.

And it comes on the heel of the most recent TIP document, which actually accelerated the construction date of the EEC by a fiscal year -- a nice change after what happened here in late 2007, when it got unceremoniously booted two years' back with a delayed construction start date, from FY2012 to FY2014, in the last TIP.

The most recent draft TIP accelerates the project from FY2014 to FY2013; not quite a make-up for the previous delay, but still nice to see amidst a tough economy. And it's more impressive when you consider that the old TIP projected a $99m cost for the road, all funded through FY14; the new plan sees a greater project cost ($161.7m) but finds funding for all but $33m through FY15.

This year and next see almost $14m committed to right of way acquisition (currently underway) and another $5.6m for utility work. Mitigation work would proceed in FY2012, followed by the first part of several years' worth of construction. (Of course, the TIP routinely has as much as twice as many projects it does funding, so it's best not to get hopes too high until dollars are actually there.)

But while that prioritization and funding appear on the TIP, reflecting the planning and priorities of NCDOT's usual methods, the TIP placement doesn't mean the EEC is full steam ahead.

The biggest wrinkle: a new strategic prioritization process for road projects known as SPOT, which will for the first time provide a more data-centric approach to centrally select project and investment priorities -- as opposed to the long-standing politicized process that gave the state's Board of Transportation a significant role.

TIP priorities, driven generally by regional MPOs in urban areas and their counterparts in more rural ones, have traditionally set much of the agenda for project prioritization.

But the SPOT process, which will run through the first half of 2010, will play a significant role in prioritizing this time around.

In an interview earlier this fall, District 5 BOT rep (and past BCR guest columnist) Chuck Watts noted that the new, data-driven process would impact the East End Connector, which hadn't made the last 60-month "let list" for projects under the old methodology.

The omission of the EEC from the "let list" -- its old November 2014 start date fell just outside the window -- meant that its funding will have to work its way through NCDOT'slens of analysis before it gets finalized.

"There's going to be a strong effort to try to keep it where it is," Watts said. "This one has strong data to support it."

City of Durham transportation director Mark Ahrendsen confirmed in a discussion and email on Thursday that while the project appears on the current version of the TIP planning document, the version being prepared by the agency next year will use the SPOT effort to prioritize Urban Loop dollars and figure out which projects should be built.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Watts echoed the sentiment that the East End Connector was a long time in coming.

"I think of lot of people in Durham feel like in the twenty years of having loop money, having no dollars spent in Durham County is problematic," Watts said -- though he went on to note that the lack of consensus on just where to spend the dollars, what with a decade-plus-long fight over the doomed Eno Drive proposal, hurt Durham's chances.

"We're talking about national and state money being spent, and we were somewhat unsure about what we wanted done, and other communities were more galvanized, more unified about what they wanted done," Watts said.

But he also echoed the point the Regional Transportation Alliance is making: namely, that the EEC isn't a road uniquely suited for the Bull City, but one that would serve a wide regional need.

"You'd be able to go from north of Durham down to almost Pinehurst at highway speeds without having to go on back roads," Watts said. "The term East End Connector describes it from a Durham-only perspective. It's really more of a Triangle expressway that would help to promote a loop all around the Triangle, not just Raleigh and Durham."

The bottom line?

Keep on keeping on with that regional perspective, RTA.

Because the EEC's chances seem best when we think of this project as part of a Triangle-wide vision.

Comments

Todd P

Anything that helps get this project going is great. Much of the work to be done will be to upgrade a couple miles of US 70, a further benefit to Durham.

Durham, Winston-Salem and Asheville have gotten screwed out of this funding while Charlotte got a 60 mile loop, Raleigh got a 25 mile semicircle, and Greensboro, Wilmington and Fayetteville all got projects completed as well.

Durham's indecision over the NE/NW loop played a big part in the funding delay. The fact is that the portion of the proposed route from US 70 at the Wake County line to I-85 near the new Walmart is the same today as it was under the old Eno Drive plan. That portion of the road was just 2-3 years away from construction when Durham went back to the drawing board for the rest of the route in 2002.
https://www.ncdot.gov/projects/ndp/

But Durham decided to shuffle the priority of how the loop money is to be spent (#1-EEC, #2-US 70, #3-I-85, #4-N Durham Pkwy), and NCDOT sent our road money to another city that had a project ready to go. If Durham had left the I-85 to Wake County portion of the N Durham Pkwy at the top of our priority list, it would probably be open today. Instead, we still have nothing to show for the nickel a gallon we have been paying since 1989.

GreenLantern

@ToddP: The NE Durham Parkway from I85 to US70 near Page Road was not meant to be a freeway and did not offer a stoplight-free route from I85 to points south. This portion of the old Eno Loop was to be 2-4 lanes, divided by landscaped median, and numerous intersections with local connectors like Cheek, Hwy98, Holder, Sherron, etc. The purpose was to take some traffic off of Hwy70 on the way to the airport or Raleigh, and to promote growth in the eastern portion of the county. Since it begins at a point east of Page Road at Hwy 70, it would not effectively serve to move commuters from RTP to areas north and east. It would allow a direct access to the airport with an alignment with Aviation(?) parkway, but for most part would not be a commuter route or way through the Triangle as the EEC would provide with direct access to the Durham Freeway in RTP.

Renaming the EEC as "Triangle Expressway" was a good idea, since it really does benefit the Triangle as much as it does Durham. Durham will get a much-improved US70 roadway as a side benefit.

Todd P

@GL - I did not mean to suggest NE Durham Pkwy as a substitute for the EEC - it isn't. What I am saying is that Durham would at least have received some loop road money by now if not for our change of plans / priorities for the loop road funds. We moved the one shovel-ready project that had current studies and environmental planning done to the bottom of our priority list, below 3 others that were years away from being construction ready.

Rather than shifting funding among our priorities, we effectively sent our road money to Wake, Guilford, and Mecklenberg Counties. The EEC is long overdue, but delaying the NE Durham Pkwy has done nothing to help get the EEC built.


Chuckde424

Nice piece Kevin . . . I did want to add that the EEC portion of the Triangle Expressway, or whatever you call it, will have regional benefits and significant Durham benefits as well. One of the most signifiant benefits will be for Durhamites who may never use the new road and live on the Duke/Gregson street corridor should be a significant reduction in the highwaylike traffic that barrels through their area from I-85 and points North to get to NC 147. Folks from northern Durham County and even Person County will have quicker access to the airport, the coast, the sandhills, the RTP, and Raleigh. Again, thanks for the thorough treatment of this issue.

GreenLantern

@ToddP: Understand. However, the NE Durham Parkway was not at the top of the list for the group of projects that were negotiated with DOT in lieu of the Eno Loop. If memory serves me, the EEC was #1, followed by widening of I85 to Red Mill Rd, followed by US70 upgrade, followed by NE Parkway, followed by the NE Parkway extension to Old Oxford/Snow Hill Rd. That means no money would be spent on the shovel-ready NE Durham Parkway until the funds were used up from the associated projects further up the list. Funds set aside for other local projects would have had to be shifted to the EEC, which was not shovel-ready, because the DCHMPO and local government moved it to the top of the list. Most people expected the state to treat Durham with some consideration given our size and needs, but politics stepped in and money was diverted to loop projects down east. The projects in Wake, Guilford, and Mecklenburg are far more needed than the one down in Fayetteville given the growth rates, so I wouldn't say it is a fair comparison.

Even though we shifted our priorities from the old Eno Loop configuration, the EEC was the top priority until (I suspect) a certain representative from Fayetteville stepped in with considerable influence over DOT and somehow got those funds to complete their loop from I95.

I happen to live right next to the proposed NE Durham Parkway, and have been waiting for it to get started for over 12 years. Even though it might benefit me and my neighborhood and will act as a catalyst for growth, I still don't see it as a priority for Durham given the EEC, HWY 70, and north/south connectivity from RTP to North Durham--which the NE Durham Parkway does very little to address as it is aligned too far to the east at US70.
Using it as a commuter route from RTP to points north would dump far too many cars on Miami Blvd/Sherron Rd, which is already loaded with Wake County traffic, versus the direct route from RTP using the Durham Freeway. That's why I'd rather wait until we get it right with this new proposed Triangle Expressway.

Hopefully with this new angle, the decision-makers across the state will put aside what was argued over the past several decades locally, and focus objectively on the needs of many rather than whether NC taxpayer money is being wasted on poor, dirty Durham.

Gvilleguy

Another benefit of the East End Connector (Triangle Freeway) will be a reduction in rush hour traffic at the dangerous Ellis Rd\Angier\Pettigrew intersection where the recent tragic accident just occurred. I use that route everyday on my way to the RTP from southern Granville County. The EEC will reduce people (like me) using that intersection as a cut through to reach the Durham Freeway. The road would also help people in western Wake and southern Durham counties reach the government institutions in Butner more easily.

I also think the North Durham Express or whatever it is called was just a ploy by the DOT to shift loop road funding elsewhere. They knew the road would face significant opposition thus tying up the decision making process for years.

Khalid

Triangle Expresway will probably reduce traffic on Capital Blvd w/ people from W. Raleigh/Cary/Apex/etc. using the new highway route. Branding is everything in this case. Regardless of the new planning system, we will still need support from our local legislators (Luebke, etc.)

www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2718395

Does this mean the city would get Duke and Gregson back and could make them 2-ways streets? Man that'd be nice!

Kevin Davis

@https://www.facebook.c--oh-whatever: Yeah, thats the theory. City officials have said in the past that 2-waying Duke/Gregson and Rox/Mangum would be a possibility once the EEC lowers traffic load. On the flip side, the City would have to take those roads off of NCDOTs hands in order to do so, so we need both the connector built and for tax revenues to look all happy for that to happen.

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