Morrisville focuses on transportation, downtown

aramos@newsobserver.comJanuary 26, 2014 

— Town leaders focused on quality-of-life issues such as transportation during their annual planning retreat over the weekend.

The future widening of Morrisville Carpenter Road, renovations to the Morrisville Aquatics and Fitness Center and updates to a downtown plan all came up during the Town Council’s retreat in Wilmington.

“It’s no secret, every person I talk to wants to know why aren’t we doing anything about transportation,” said Mayor Mark Stohlman.

Stohlman said he touts the progress of the N.C. 54 bypass but struggles to come up with a good answer why other road projects, such as the widening of Morrisville Carpenter Road, aren’t moving forward.

He said he’s tired of explaining that it’s a state road and that the issue is state funding.

“People don’t care if it’s a Morrisville road or state road,” Stohlman said. “It’s a Morrisville problem. They wonder why aren’t we fixing it.

“It’s up to us to fix Morrisville Carpenter Road, from Page Street to (the) Savannah (neighborhood). The community is behind us.”

While it would be impossible to fix all of the town’s transportation issues, it may be possible to focus on one particular problem and dedicate the necessary resources, maybe setting off a domino effect, Stohlman said.

Morrisville’s current policy doesn’t allow the town to spend money on a state road unless it poses a public safety or environmental issue.

With Fire Station 1 off Morrisville Carpenter Road, Stohlman said it’s not a stretch to think of it as a safety issue.

If developers donate land for the right of way along the N.C. 54 bypass as expected, it could save the town about $4 million. Some of that money could be used toward upgrading Morrisville Carpenter Road, Stohlman said.

Councilman Steve Rao said he would like to see the council put more pressure on the state General Assembly, particularly when it comes to transportation funding.

“We have to let them know what they’re doing is affecting us,” he said. “Let’s make some noise.”

Rao likens Morrisville’s transportation woes to a clogged artery in the heart.

Morrisville’s location places it at the center, or the heart, of the Triangle. It serves as a throughway from Cary to Research Triangle Park.

So the town’s clogged roads need relief, Rao said.

Councilwoman Vicki Scroggins-Johnson said she wanted to see more public transit options such as more bus stops, which could help take some pressure off the roads.

Downtown plans

The Morrisville Aquatics and Fitness Center is set to get about $3.5 million in renovations thanks to a bond voters approved in 2012.

However, council members are still trying to figure out how to get the best return on investment for those dollars.

The center’s tennis courts need repaved, the weight room needs more space, and the facility needs more exercise studios and a permanent enclosure for the swimming pool.

The council is considering moving the aquatics center to a future downtown.

Another option would be to partner with a private group to build a state-of-the-art facility at its current site or elsewhere.

Meanwhile, plans for the downtown have hit an obstacle. Developers are unwilling to step into a public-private partnership without having full site control, said Planning Director Benjamin Hitchings.

Morrisville owns about 12 of the 22 acres in the Town Center Plan. The eight to 12 owners of the remaining tracks are not willing to give the town purchasing “options” on the property, said Tim Gauss, director of development services.

Most would be willing to sell now or to consider it in the future, he said.

But without having the options or the land now, developers won’t move forward, Hitchings said.

The Morrisville Town Council asked staff for more information on the remaining eight unpurchased parcels in the town center area before making a decision on how to move forward.

All council members said they weren’t interested in pursuing eminent domain for the properties.

“You go out into other communities and you look at their town centers and their main street, and I say, ‘Wow, somebody took a plan and stuck with it,’ and 30 years later here you are,” said Councilwoman Liz Johnson. “Nobody said it was going to be quick and easy. I’m not ready to abandon anything. This site we are talking about it critically important for all kinds of reasons.”

Town Manager Martha Wheelock said she will take the council’s strategic priorities, including the aquatics center and transportation projects, listed during the retreat and bring back a plan to council for a workshop some time in March.

The council will also get a chance to meet with downtown center consultants and real estate experts in the next few months to learn about the status of the remaining un-purchased parcels in the Town Center Plan.

Ramos: 919-460-2609; Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews

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