UPDATE: On the week of May 9, Chapel Hill town staff say contractors will begin to relocate a Dominion Energy gas line from the construction site. Grading at the intersection of Estes and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard will also continue.

Improving pedestrian and bicyclist infrastructure along Estes Drive in Chapel Hill has long been an aim for the town government and a wish for those who live nearby. After years of preparation and planning, construction began this week to do exactly that.

The Estes Drive Connectivity Project is an extensive, federally-funded overhaul of the busy road that mixes residential and school traffic with those looking to travel between the Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Franklin Street corridors. When complete, the road will have a separated bike lane, expanded and extended sidewalks to Caswell Road, new turning lanes onto MLK Boulevard and enhanced crosswalks.

But, in order to install this, significant construction and road work is projected for the next year. Lane closures, one-way traffic, blocking of walking space and likely disruption to nearby residents can be expected.

Town officials are saying community members will experience some short-term inconveniences in order to build the long-term resources. Here is what Chapel Hill can anticipate in the area of Estes Drive for the duration of the project.

What work is already complete?

Construction on the Estes Drive Connectivity Project officially got underway on Wednesday, March 16. Those driving, walking and biking along Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard experienced closures in the northbound turning lane onto Estes Drive as workers graded and cleared space near the roads’ intersection. Now, nearly all four corners of the intersection are graded and prepped for widening sidewalks or additional turning lanes. The same work can be expected along parts of Estes Drive before long as well.

What is happening now?

The current phase is expected to be the most disruptive and likely the longest-lasting stretch of construction. On Monday, April 4, Estes Drive was converted to one-way traffic only: eastbound from Somerset Drive to the stoplight at Estes Drive’s intersection with Caswell Road. This is for the construction of the bike lane and sidewalks on the north side of the road, which currently has no sidewalks.

A later phase of construction for the Estes Drive Connectivity Project will see traffic reduced to one-way only on the road. This portion of the project is expected to begin in April 2022. (Photo via the Town of Chapel Hill.)

For construction of sidewalks and a bike lane on the south side of Estes Drive, the one-way traffic pattern will be extended all the way to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Eastbound traffic will be shifted to run in the opposite lane.

This stretch of the Estes Drive Connectivity Project is projected to last around one year. Following this, additional closures near the intersection of Estes Drive and MLK Boulevard can be expected as construction crews expand part of the road to add an additional left turn lane from Estes to MLK. Right turn lanes from MLK to Estes will also be constructed, since the sidewalk will also be installed along part of Estes Drive Extension.

The projected final phase of the Estes Drive Connectivity Project and how it will affect vehicle traffic (Image via the Town of Chapel Hill.)

How will traffic be affected?

While initial steps of construction caused only temporary lane closures and construction flagging, vehicles are now expected to need significant detours as work gets underway along Estes Drive. The Town of Chapel Hill says the official detours are Weaver Dairy Road and Franklin Street to reach Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard — with town staff expecting to monitor the amount of vehicles cutting through on residential roads.

The one-way traffic is expected to impact school bus routes and the traffic patterns for both Phillips Middle School and Estes Hills Elementary School. Town staff say they are working with school officials to “minimize” how much the construction affects these patterns, but Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Nyah Hamlett said in March that families to expect “significant” changes.

But Hamlett also said the December crash that severely injured two CHCCS students who were using a crosswalk highlights the need for such upgrades to the road both schools use.

“I think it’s very important, and I think it’s very unfortunate that the tragic accident happened when it did: prior to this work being underway,” the superintendent told 97.9 The Hill. “But I think it’s also a great opportunity to make sure that we are really prioritizing safety and collaborating with the [local governments] to make sure when we say student safety and school safety is of the utmost importance, we really put those words into action.”

And while the Town of Chapel Hill encourages nearby students to consider walking or bicycling to school during the closure, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger says the closures will also cause some challenges to those who walking along the stretch of North Estes Drive.

“It’s going to be harder for bicyclists and pedestrians to interact with construction traffic and one-lane traffic,” she said. “It’s still doable, and the sidewalk on the south side will stay for a while, but there’s not as much sidewalk on the north side already.

“It’s going to be a delay for everyone,” the mayor added. “Not just cars, but people and bikes as well.”

Some bus routes are also affected. Chapel Hill Transit has several bus routes that use the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive, with some traveling down Estes as well. Currently, the G route and the Senior Shuttle are the two that are seeing their routes changed, according to the transit system.

How will it look when finished?

Once complete, the stretch of Estes Drive from Caswell Drive to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard will look significantly different along the sides of the road. The two lanes for vehicles will be sandwiched by new curbs, which will separate bike lanes running on both the north and south side of the street. On the south side bike lane will be another curb buffer next to a five-foot sidewalk, while the north side of the street will have a ten-foot sidewalk that runs directly next to the bike lane. The town government also plans for a planting strip to be installed as a buffer between the north-side sidewalk and places like Phillips Middle School and Azalea Estates.

A rendering of how westbound Estes Drive will look beginning at Caswell Road following the completion of the Estes Drive Connectivity Project. (Photo via the Town of Chapel Hill.)

Those travelling west on Estes Drive will see more changes close to the intersection with Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. The current part with three west-bound lanes (one turning left onto MLK Boulevard, one turning right onto MLK Boulevard and one going straight) will add a fourth: another left-turning lane from Estes onto MLK. Additionally, the bike lane will then experience a planting strip separation from the north sidewalk.

Where can I learn more?

Additional information and updates about the Estes Drive Connectivity Project can be found on the Town of Chapel Hill’s website. Town officials say anyone who experiences issues caused by the construction during the project should call Chapel Hill’s construction and engineering inspections firm at 919-789-9977.


Photo via the Town of Chapel Hill.

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