Cary’s balding medians cause for government concern

akenney@newsobserver.comSeptember 29, 2013 

— Five years after the economy crashed, the effects of pared-back spending are visible along stretches of Cary roadway.

Landscaped parkways have long been a point of pride for Cary. But in patches across town, grassy medians are going bare and asphalt roads are showing their age.

Guerrilla gardeners have put rogue maple trees along one road. Weeds are poking through the cul-de-sac in the mayor’s neighborhood, and elected officials face campaign questions on the issue.

“You’re going out door-to-door talking to people, and you have grass in the cul-de-sac, and you’re having to explain the investments you’re making elsewhere in town,” said Councilman Jack Smith, who is trying to keep his seat on the board. “Those are just common realities we have to deal with.”

The issue began with the recession five years ago, when plummeting revenues forced governments everywhere to cut back. In particular, Cary stopped landscaping new sections of road up to its standards, and it slashed funding to its road repaving programs.

Without money for landscaping, some new roads were left with the state transportation department treatment – a layer of grass and dirt that doesn’t tend to hold on well – while sections of older roads were left unimproved even as new development cropped up.

Cary Parkway is verdant as ever, but medians along McCrimmon Parkway, High House Road and Tryon Road, among others, are balding, and both residents and elected officials are asking questions.

“Sometimes we do things to the height of beauty,” said Councilwoman Lori Bush, pointing out the new downtown roundabouts as an example. “Then in other areas, in west Cary, we don’t even have grass. What gets the high-end Cary way, and what (do) we have to wait on?”

More spending on deck

One group of residents apparently took matters into their own hands, planting five maple trees along Chapel Hill Road.

That’s definitely not allowed, but town staffers are turning a blind eye – perhaps because they’re so acutely aware of mounting complaints.

“Oh my God, it drives me crazy,” Scott Hecht, Cary’s public works director, said of neighborhoods that aren’t up to par. “I notice them all the time when I drive around town. I hate it that they don’t all look pristine.”

Now a long solution is in sight: The town is preparing to resume spending on new roadway landscaping. At a recent meeting, town staff requested money to begin landscaping new areas.

The first on the list is High House Road, slated next fiscal year for $55,000 of aesthetic improvements, followed the next year by $45,000 for Chapel Hill Road, then by $240,000 for N.C. 55.

The list goes all the way out to fiscal year 2025, when Regency Parkway could get an upgrade.

The long-term plan totals about $1.2 million, and would come with tens of thousands of dollars of maintenance costs. (Depending on their location, roads need trimming, cutting and, in the case of Cary Parkway, fertilizing.)

The council also could put more money into paving over grass that has broken through cracks in cul-de-sacs, members said.

Chief among the council’s concerns was how the new landscaping plan would be ordered.

A matter of priority

“We often hear from people in western Cary … ‘When are we going to have the same level of treatment as the rest of the town? I haven’t heard (complaints about) High House Road in a long time,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson. “… We should get in there and prioritize.”

But staff said that roads like High House had been on the schedule for improvements for years. Mayor Harold Weinbrecht, who lives in southern Cary, suggested that “cherry-picking is a dangerous way to go.”

None of the council members, though, argued against the trees, bushes and grasses that Cary has long placed along miles of road.

The plantings help absorb rainwater, but the median plantings are largely aesthetic, Hecht said.

“We are very proud of it,” he said. “I think it’s very visible. I think visitors notice it.”

Median plantings won’t be the town’s only maintenance concern either. Money from the recent $80 million bond package has kept roads out of “terrible shape,” but Tim Bailey, Cary’s director of engineering, expects rising repair costs for roads in the coming years.

“A lot of our roads were built at one time and need maintenance at one time,” he said. “We are getting to the point that the curb and gutter is getting old, and we are going to need a big lump there. … To keep up with our goals we set in the past, we will need a lot more money to keep up in the future.”

Kenney: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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