[UPDATE:] Please excuse the draft of this post, with broken links, that was earlier erroneously posted.

During my 2005 Council run, I was advised by “folks in the political know” that my optimistic call to UNC to put their 2003 Carolina North development plans aside and start anew would fall on deaf ears. “Don’t waste your time. You set the bar too high. Too ambitious a challenge.”

That plan, with its many deficiencies – 17,000 parking spaces, unimaginative design, lack of transit opportunities – was neither worthy of our world-class University or of the charming Town it occupies.

UNC needed to rethink the initial parameters of this mega-project,to craft a new collaborative development process, to tap their incredible on-campus talent and to assure the local community that our local values would be honored – our zoning authority respected.

Six months later, UNC has set aside their initial RTP-lite development plans, created a new community outreach group (the Carolina North Leadership Advisory Comm.), committed to following the town’s zoning authority and participated diligently (with a few continuing missteps) in the recasting of Carolina North’s design and development principles.

Maybe my optimism wasn’t so misplaced.

Buried in today’s June 9th, 2006 letter to Mayor Foy from UNC’s Chancellor Moeser are some new positive commitments from UNC.

To set the stage, a few observations:

  • Transportation doesn’t imply parking lots.
  • Transit is not the same as transportation.
  • You must study an issue before you can address proposed solutions.
  • This ain’t horseshoes.

Let’s start with some positives.

…I want to formally state the University will not seek approval for 17,000 parking spaces as shown on the 2003-2004 concept plan.

Fantastic! I challenged UNC to start with zero parking spaces and work up. I still want UNC to start much lower but Moeser’s commitment appears substantive.

Parking consumes a bit of the letter, including a challenge to Carrboro and Chapel Hill to provide free parking to their employees. In one sentence, Moeser whinges about the long agreed upon drop to .48 parking spaces per UNC employee while in the next boasts that this reduction provides “solid evidence of our current commitment to transit.”

How strong a commitment?

Any proposal for parking at Carolina North will be informed by the results of the proposed transit study, by aggressive, cost-effective transportation demand management strategies and by the guiding principles developed by the [LAC]

Hmmm. “Informed”? “Aggressively cost-effective”? What do these mean in context of UNC’s view of the proposed Carolina North transit study?

Does that mean Carolina North will be a transit-oriented design?

The University has always viewed public transit as the most important component of any transportation plan for Carolina North.

Always? Maybe Moeser needs a quick trip in the Wayback Machine. Let’s excuse the overstep and grasp the positive assertion that “transit is the most important component.”

We’re on a roll here.

However, we know that almost 70 percent of University and UNC Hospital employees live outside the Chapel Hill Transit service area, and the number living in the service area has dropped by 20 percent since 2001.

Ouch! Moeser is back to an old game plan – mixing apples and oranges to make an odd Brunswick stew.

Conflating existing transit modalities and requirements with future Carolina North (CN) demands makes zero sense. Carolina North is a whole new ballgame – with, supposedly, private and public workforces, on-site residences and mixed-mode commercial facilities.

…issues of regional access to Carolina North and our main campus by faculty, staff, students, and visitors will not be addressed by a study within the Chapel Hill Transit services alone.

Yes! Yes! We do need to incorporate the wider transit ecology into the transit study. From the western edge of Alamance to the southern edge of Chatham – from the most hardcore of single-occupancy commuters to the most enlightened of bike riders – to be valid the net should be cast wide, the breadth comprehensive, to capture all the various inputs into the transit equation.

Will UNC employees commute from Alamance when gas hits $7/gallon? What happens when TTA gives up on light rail and goes with BRT (bus rapid transit)?

Because we recognize transit will not serve all the needs for travel to Carolina North…

Looking a bit ominous…

we belive a comprehensive transportation study that looks at transit as one piece of an overall transportation system is also needed.

Crash! Cart. Horse. Before. Transit study first, if you please.

Worse, does this mean roads?

This transit study should be used to inform the DCHC [Durham/Chapel Hill/Carrboro] 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan. Transportation needs in specific corridors that cannot be met cost-effectively by the transit strategies identified by the transit study will be addressed by the 2035 Plan.

Yep, roads. North, South, East, West roads. Wide roads. I-40 interchange roads.

The consultants performing the transit study will be selected by a steering committee comprised of representatives from Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, NC-DOT (the “roads friendly folk”), the University and, just guessing here, dilutive members of UNC’s Board of Trustees, the Knights Templar and the local Grange.

And, again, what does “cannot be met cost-effectively” and “addressed by the 2035 Plan” mean? Who sets the metric as to cost-effective strategies? UNC? Will unconventional strategies – Zipcars or “borrow bikes” – be reviewed? As with UNC’s Carolina North parking lot strategy, how aggressive do these “cost-effective” strategies need to be to fit their financial model?

Heck, by short-sighted development measures, paving Paradise is probably considered “aggressively cost-effective”.

This study, its methodology, the consultants performing it and the guidelines the steering committee set will all bear close scrutiny.

At least “the University agrees that moving forward with transit planning is critical.” Moeser “generously” offered to pay %60 of the remaining cost of the study – a study necessitated by UNC’s own grand development plans.

Kudos, though, to Moeser for highlighting UNC’s continuing $6 million commitment to bus transit, to their employee’s and student’s dramatic increased usage of the pallative Park-n-Ride, to the recent national awards for transportation management.

Overall positive, this letter demonstrates Moeser is listening to the LAC.

Endorsing, even if a bit tentatively, the LAC’s (and the Horace Williams Citizens Comm.) calls for a comprehensive transit study, is welcomed. Predicating eventual transit proposals on the rather vague metric of “aggressive, cost-effective” is troubling but the expression of “confidence that agreement will be reached on these details” is comforting.

Finally, while Moeser is correct that UNC demonstrates “a commitment to public transit … every day” , to claim that this commitment has long been integral to the Carolina North process is disingenous.

From the heights of 17,000 parking spaces off the table to the lows of conflating transit and transportation studies, a mixed bag, as it ever seems, from Chancellor Moeser.

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