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Column: We should transfer maintenance of Franklin Street from NCDOT to the Town

Franklin Street is pictured here on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.

I walk down Franklin Street a lot — like the entire length of it — at least once or twice a day. As a result, I know it pretty well. I also know what it’s like to almost get run over by lunatics driving out of the Chipotle parking lot at 30 miles per hour. So, this is a plea to those who drive on Franklin like it's I-40 — I want to survive walking home. 

Please, slow down. Thank you.

Over the last two years, the Town of Chapel Hill has been making some changes to the street and has installed a walkway (which violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which should not surprise you). Additionally, the Town had the entire street resurfaced by the N.C. Department of Transportation and added curb-running bike lanes.

These are good. I will say that there are some problems with curb-running bike lanes as they tend to be dangerous for bikers. The safest bike lanes are physically raised above the street surface, which protects them from cars. 

This is one of the reasons why Chapel Hill released a presentation and survey asking for residents' advice on what they should do with Franklin Street moving forward. Those can be found here and here

Now, if you’re not a massive nerd, don't worry. I have you covered.

There are six options, some require transferring street maintenance from NCDOT to the Town. I think this is a good idea, but first, let's run through the plans that don’t require maintenance transfer. 

The first is to actually roll back the design of Franklin Street to the pre-COVID-19 design, removing biking and pedestrian quality-of-life changes. This would make it marginally faster to drive through Franklin while making life worse for literally everyone else. Bad idea. 

The other one which wouldn’t require maintenance transfer is to keep Franklin the way it is right now. Which is to say, good, but could be better. 

And that's my excuse to talk about what maintenance transfer actually means — and why it's a good thing.

Right now, all maintenance of Franklin Street is taken care of by NCDOT, which is cheaper for the Town. Transferring means that Chapel Hill has to take over maintenance, but also gives them a lot more control over changes to it. This is why, even if the Town decides not to go with, for example, the plan titled “Reconstruct Franklin Street" (which would literally tear up the entire street and rebuild it from the ground up), they should still transfer maintenance. 

Is it an additional expense? Of course, but Franklin is the heart of Chapel Hill. Taking over Franklin Street allows the Town to adapt as it and the University grow.

The plans where the Town thinks it would transfer maintenance range from improved bike lanes to pedestrian safety features. Options can include small parklets, artwork, increased outdoor dining and shopping space (think Que Chula’s patio) and a separated mixed-use bike and pedestrian walkway.

There are pros and cons to each design. 

I am personally a fan of a multi-use pathway. Franklin Street isn't just a transportation thoroughfare and designing it around commerce and the less car-bound student population is a far better idea than trying to make the street friendly to through traffic.

Whatever the Town decides will have some drawbacks and temporary negative impacts, but the presentation does show that they’re looking at making some positive changes for cyclists and pedestrians. I’d encourage them to think big. 

There's an opportunity to make Chapel Hill the gold standard for walkability in the South. We just need to take it.  


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