Road Worrier

Leesville traffic will get better -- but not quickly

Staff WriterAugust 5, 2009 

The morning-rush traffic on Leesville Road, north of the 540 Outer Loop, will get better late this year. First, though, it probably will get worse.

As for the afternoon drive, that's not going to improve for a long time.

Leesville was a skinny, two-lane country road that carried just 15,000 cars a day in 1998 before the Outer Loop opened.

It's still two lanes -- but now clogged with 24,000 cars, according to the most recent daily count in 2007. That's a lot of country coming to town each day.

And that tally two years ago does not include the cars and buses rolling into Sycamore Creek Elementary School, which opened in August 2008. Sycamore Creek is a year-round school with 715 students, and its contribution to congestion does not let up during the summer.

The City of Raleigh expects by December to finish a short widening project now under way. It will give Leesville a second southbound lane to I-540 from the school entrance at Farless Road.

This should reduce morning backups for inbound traffic at the Farless intersection, and speed the flow for commuters heading down Norwood, Farless and Leesville roads to I-540.

But for now, drivers say, the construction makes the rush-hour backups worse.

Monday morning, for the first time, southbound traffic expanded into two lanes on Leesville at the Farless intersection -- but only briefly, before the orange cones funneled everybody back into single file.

And the morning rush surely will get worse in August, when the full impact of back-to-school traffic hits Triangle roads like a late-summer hurricane.

Leesville will share the added traffic heading for public schools that follow the traditional nine-month calendar. Classes also will resume for 680 students at another carpool magnet on Leesville Road: the parochial Franciscan School, two blocks from Sycamore Creek.

"Once the Franciscan School opens, that will be the real test," said Brian Ray, 36, who lives in the Harrington Grove neighborhood off Leesville Road. Ray sometimes spends 10 minutes or more driving that first mile south to I-540.

Some of his neighbors see the jam on Leesville and head in the opposite direction, away from I-540, hoping for better luck on the back roads through Brier Creek.

"Every morning it's a different route," said Dustin Cantrell, 28, who commutes to the Imperial Center near Research Triangle Park. It's a six-mile drive that can take 30 minutes.

Slow improvement

By December, Leesville will be one lane wider, but only on its southbound side -- and only south of Sycamore Creek Elementary. When will the road be widened for commuters headed home from I-540 in the afternoon?

Raleigh voters approved bonds in 2005 to make Leesville four lanes wide -- from I-540 north past both schools to Hickory Grove Church Road, a $10 million job.

"That would help in the evening," said Fred Holt, 67, who lives off Norwood Road. "Coming back the other way in the evening, man, that's really jammed up, too."

The city is starting design work this summer for the full Leesville widening. Tentative plans call for construction in 2011, but the city has not made a commitment yet.

This year's fiscal crunch forced a one-year delay in public works projects, so full relief for Leesville drivers could be pushed even farther into the future.

"Hopefully, when the situation improves economically, we'll be able to restore the funding next year," said Eric Lamb, the city's transportation services manager.

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