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Chapel Hill advisory board hears NEXT petition to extend Libba Cotten Bikeway

The freshly painted green bike lanes are pictured here on Franklin Street on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

On Sept. 27, the Chapel Hill Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board considered a petition for an extension to the Libba Cotten Bikeway that was proposed by NEXT, a Chapel Hill- and Carrboro-based community organization dedicated to improving affordable housing and equitable transportation infrastructure. 

The bikeway is a protected, two-way trail linking downtown Carrboro to West Cameron Avenue via South Merritt Mill Road, on the border of Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

If NEXT’s project is implemented, the bikeway would stretch from its current western end at Roberson Street to South Columbia Street. If the project is adopted, the construction could be complete by summer 2023, according to NEXT’s website.

NEXT board member John Rees said he thinks current bike lanes along West Cameron Avenue and other Chapel Hill-Carrboro roadways do not adequately protect cyclists from the encroachment of motorists into their space.

“You’re not really gonna find yourself protected by a piece of paint,” Rees said.

 The Town plans to move forward with re-striping bike lanes over summer 2023.

Recently, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has been undertaking road resurfacing projects to create curb-adjacent bike lanes along West Franklin Street. 

Existing pavement markings were reorganized to be more cyclist-friendly, Amy Ryan, a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, said. 

She added that such projects are part of a larger blueprint for sustainable transport options along Cameron Avenue, Franklin Street and Rosemary Street.

“We are talking about how we can make these three routes work together and develop a really good bike-ped circulation system for our downtown,” she said.

Yet, Rees said bike lane refurbishments are inadequate in supporting transportation alternatives in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. He said protected trails are preferable to other cycling infrastructure.

“You’ve got alignments for people going both directions," Rees said. "There is space for walkers and joggers. This is what people want when they’re riding a bicycle, what we call separated facilities."

Rees said there is precedent in Town policy for such improvements. The 2020 Town of Chapel Hill Mobility and Connectivity Plan calls for the construction of multi-use trails parallel to motorways. 

Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils also expressed support for the extension of the bikeway. 

“As somebody who places a high priority on people having more options to get around, I think that anytime we can find a better way to connect our communities is a good thing," he said. "It’s a really vital connection between our two towns, and it’s used by hundreds of people every day."

Rees said the majority of these path users are UNC students or staff commuting to campus. 

According to Rees, many of them, particularly the groundskeepers and dining hall staff are often not being paid enough to live in Chapel Hill, let alone park a car on University premises.

Therefore, Rees said, the Town should devote more of its street maintenance budget to moving away from car-centric infrastructure, especially in the absence of affordable housing.

“For generations, we’ve been spending all our money on roads,” Rees said.

Ryan expressed doubt as to whether the exact specifications of NEXT’s design fit with Cameron Avenue’s dimensions.

Still, she said, Chapel Hill needs to find ways to build housing that allows residents to have fewer cars. 

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"A big discussion is going to be how we make those infrastructure investments in things like greenways and bike lanes in order to achieve that vision,” Ryan said.

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