Funding shifts for pedestrian projects in Greensboro

by Jeff Sykes

Pedestrian projects move forward after funding shift

| @jeffreysykes

Greensboro transportation planners this past week defended their plan to postpone funding for 22 miles of sidewalks, opting instead to target two major projects that could meet federal funding timelines.

One stalled road extension and a mix of delayed sidewalk projects would be deferred so that about $5 million in federal and local matching funds could be put to use completing sidewalks along East Lee Street and kickstarting Phase II of the Downtown Greenway.

Tyler Meyer, planning division manager for the Greensboro Department of Transportation, told an intergovernmental panel that the move also allows staff to deliver on 63 miles of sidewalk projects scheduled to be completed before 2018.

Federal transportation dollars come with funding deadlines. The Greensboro Metropolitan Planning Organization is allocated money to be spent in funding cycles, the most recent of which ends in 2018. Instead of losing the money due to delayed sidewalk projects, planning staff wants to put the money toward sidewalks along East Lee Street and the Downtown Greenway’s Phase II. Both projects could be completed in 2017, Meyer said.

The East Lee Street sidewalk project would run from Willow Road to Florida Street, and include bicycle lanes, according to planners. The funding strategy would move $2.6 million in federal money and about $600,000 in local matching dollars from a planned extension of Florida Street to the sidewalk project.

A projected $3.5 million extension of Florida Street is no longer feasible given community opposition. City planners had wanted to extend Florida Street across Lee Street through the Gateway University Research Park and NC A&T State University’s research farm. The road would have extended to McConnell Road.

But neighbors and members of the university community expressed opposition to the road project. Members of the university community sought to keep the research farm intact for the time being. Meyer told the planning committee that the city doesn’t intend to pursue the Florida Street project at this time, despite the lack of high volume north-south routes in that area.

Moving another 22 miles of delayed sidewalk projects to the 2019 funding cycle frees up about $2.7 million, Meyer said, money the city wants to put toward Phase II of the Downtown Greenway. That money will be part of a $4.5 million package for the greenway project. That phase of the greenway has a total price tag of $6 million.

“We feel there is a very good case for that,” Meyer said, noting that the Downtown Greenway was the second highest rated project in a recent study of bicycle and pedestrian needs in the Gate City. Staffers expect the state to contribute about $500,000 toward construction costs, with an additional $1 million coming from voter approved transportation bonds passed in 2008.

“If that’s what it takes then I think there is enough bond funding available to make that happen,” Meyer said.

The committee passed the request unanimously, but not before Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, and a member of the state transportation board, lectured staff about the project delays.

Greensboro City Councilman Jamal Fox asked Meyer about the delays, and the needed transfer of funds.

“We set targets for sidewalk construction “¦ but that’s not always possible,” Meyer said. “Sometimes complications arise in developing projects in terms of more complicated designs. Sometimes we run into just the sheer limits of staff capacity. There’s only so many projects that can be done at any one point in time.”

Greensboro’s transportation director, Adam Fischer, pointed out that the move was basic dollars and sense.

“We wouldn’t want to tie up those funds with those projects that wouldn’t be available in that time frame,” Fischer said. “It would make more sense, in our opinion, to move it to a project that could be built in that timeline and take advantage of the funds that are available.”

Vaughan sought further clarification on the timeline associated with the new direction.

“I continue to be exasperated by how long it takes to build a sidewalk,” Vaughan said. “So the East Lee Street sidewalk, or the Gate City Boulevard sidewalks that we’re talking about, you’re saying they won’t be until 2018?” “If it’s possible to deliver them ahead of time, we will,” Meyer said. “It’s in the design process now and then it’s got to go through the right of way process, property mapping, utility relocations. When you lay it out on paper, that’s pretty much where it lands.”

Vaughan acknowledged the realities of the East Lee Street project, which she compared to starting from scratch since that section of road lacks even curb and gutter at present.

Fischer detailed the process of embankment and shoulder work necessary to prepare East Lee Street for sidewalks.

“It’s more like rebuilding the roadway,” Fischer said. “We’re also going to investigate the possibility of bike lanes along this section in association with the new sidewalks. So it’s more than just putting a sidewalk along the edge of the road. You are actually rebuilding the shoulder to accommodate that.”

Vaughan asked if the project could be accelerated. Meyer explained that with 63 miles of projects, any alteration of one timeline could slow down others. He pointed to a major project along English Street that is further along in the planning phase.

“It seems that keeping that project on schedule ahead of [East Lee Street] makes more sense than moving this up,” Meyer said.

Fischer added that “in my experience, this is a pretty accelerated schedule by 2018.”

“You are much more patient than I am,” the mayor replied.

Cheryl McQueary, a member of the state transportation board, said state planners were looking at ways to speed up sidewalk projects. She asked Meyer if the city had used consultants to speed up their design processes. Meyer said that in the past the city looked to limit its use of consultants in order to save money for construction costs.

But recent projects have used consultants, including a combination of projects taking place along Lees Chapel, Yanceyville and Pisgah Church roads in addition to the English Street project.

“If that actually succeeds, it will be a very good example of using consultants to keep the project moving,” Meyer said. “We are learning as we go. This may help us to see ways to do more of that, or where we can benefit more.”

McQueary urged city transportation planners to look at speeding up their process.

“I’m sympathetic with the mayor,” McQueary said. “It’s phenomenal how long it takes.”

She noted that the majority of people moving to North Carolina are projected to move to urban environments in coming years.

“People are going to want sidewalks and bicycle lanes and things like that,” McQueary said. “If there’s a way to crash that schedule, it would be really nice.”

Fischer said that GDOT plans to build 100 miles of sidewalks in the next decade. !