N.C. Highway 54 runs through the southern side of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, connecting passengers to Burlington in the west and Raleigh in the east. It also cuts through dense population areas in Orange County without the infrastructure to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists traveling along the corridor or attempting to access transit stops.
To address this lack of infrastructure and the dangers it poses, the N.C. Department of Transportation is conducting a long-term corridor study of the highway between the intersections of Old Fayetteville Road in Carrboro and Manning Drive in Chapel Hill. NCDOT partnered with the two towns and UNC to conduct the N.C. 54 Bicycle and Pedestrian Corridor Safety Study.
Damon Seils, Carrboro Board of Aldermen member, said residents and officials in Chapel Hill and Carrboro have, over the years, raised concerns about the safety of pedestrians and cyclists on the corridor. He said there is a lack of infrastructure for people along the highway who are not in cars.
“I challenge anyone to feel safe crossing Highway 54 at Manning Drive, even with the pedestrian signal at the crosswalks,” he said.
Brian Litchfield, transit director for the Town of Chapel Hill, said NCDOT controls the corridor’s infrastructure. With study input from the towns and UNC, he said he hopes for the department to invest in improved infrastructure.
On April 29, NCDOT will host a community open house to gather input from residents who wish to share their thoughts and concerns as part of the study. Although he will not be present, Litchfield said, as a resident who lives along the corridor, he has a good idea of what community members will say.
“It’ll be an opportunity for those conducting the study to be able to hear directly from residents,” he said.
The project is currently in Phase I, which consists of data collection. VHB, an engineering firm in Raleigh, is conducting the study by gathering data on traffic counts along the corridor and at its intersections. It also tracks transit usage, field observations and crash statistics. David Phipps, the NCDOT contact for the study, joined VHB for a field site, in which he and others involved walked parts of the corridor and boarded transit at stops along the highway.
“We’ll take all this data we’ve gathered, all this information, all the concerns we get from the public, all that information and then begin to develop some strategies and counter measures to improve safety,” he said.
Phipps referenced Kingswood Apartments and Laurel Ridge Apartments as two locations along the corridor where people access transit services. At these apartments, there are no crosswalks, leaving residents to cross the highway at their own discretion.
“Chapel Hill transit has some bus lines that go along Highway 54 but it can be difficult for passengers to access the bus stops without kind of running across the highway,” Seils said.
Phipps said NCDOT will wait until the study results are complete before deciding what kind of infrastructure to implement along the corridor. He said the department is approaching the study with an open mind and is prepared to accept whichever actions will most improve safety.
“Primarily, I think the outcome I would be looking for would be more and better opportunities for people to get across the highway in a safe way,” Seils said.
Litchfield said Chapel Hill was excited to begin working with NCDOT to conduct the study after significant comments from residents over the years.
“We’re looking forward to see what the study finds and recommends,” he said.
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