Road Worrier

Bypass is a beauty, all right, but it can also be a beast

Staff WriterSeptember 15, 2009 

The U.S. 70 Clayton Bypass is just about the prettiest, fastest country road in the Triangle.

It's a 70 mph freeway through green hills of poplar and pine, sweet gum and kudzu -- a soothing alternative to dreary congestion and 11 stoplights on the old route through Clayton, which is now called U.S. 70 Business.

But should it win a national transportation prize for efficiency and innovation?

Last week the AAA motor club and two other groups named the Clayton Bypass one of 10 national finalists for best transportation project of the year. Their judges will pick a winner in October.

The $123 million project has made driving better for many commuters on U.S. 70, and for Triangle residents traveling to the coast.

But if rush hour finds you driving into Raleigh on Interstate 40 from southern Johnston County or southeastern North Carolina, the Clayton Bypass has made your mornings worse.

The 11-mile freeway was built with smart gizmos to help drivers plan their trips and to mitigate problems the state Department of Transportation knew it had created for I-40.

But these video cameras and real-time speed indicators have been broken for weeks or months -- nobody at DOT knows how long.

Lisa Osborne drives into Raleigh on I-40 from the Cleveland School area of Johnston County. When she heard the Clayton Bypass was up for national honors, she couldn't believe it.

"This must be a joke," said Osborne, 46. "This bypass has added 20 to 30 minutes to my commute each way."

I-40 is six lanes wide between Raleigh and the interchange at Exit 306, where 70 Business traffic enters. But the new 70 Bypass dumps thousands more cars onto I-40 at Exit 309, four miles farther south, where the interstate is only four lanes wide.

The worst rush-hour bottleneck east of Raleigh is no longer on U.S. 70 in Clayton. It's on I-40 between the two U.S. 70 exits.

To be sure, the Clayton Bypass has fans among U.S. 70 commuters. Joy Frannicola of Smithfield drives to Raleigh after the worst I-40 congestion has subsided. The bypass cuts her morning trip by 20 minutes.

When I-40 traffic gets really bad, 70 Business through Clayton can be quicker than the bypass. As drivers approach Clayton from the east, they pass an electronic billboard that is supposed to show travel times for both U.S. 70 routes, based on current, real-time traffic speeds.

Unfortunately, this billboard displays only the 70 Business travel time.

A second electronic signboard on the bypass itself was dark last week. And on eastbound I-40 near Raleigh, a third board intended to help commuters in the afternoon rush has been out of commission since May or June.

New video cameras still record traffic pictures on the bypass, but nobody sees them. The images never make it back to the DOT traffic management center in Raleigh. Antennas that relay the signals are mounted on wooden poles that have rotated as the wood dried in the past year -- pointing the antennas away from their targets.

Ed Sirgany, who oversees the traffic management center, said budget cutbacks have prevented him from sending out a repair crew.

"To make a decision, the driver needs to have information for both routes," Ricky Greene, a DOT division engineer responsible for Johnston and five other counties, said. "I'm not sure how long that may have been going on like that, but we'd like to get it right."

After a technician confirmed Friday that the message boards were on the blink, Sirgany said it appeared to be a software problem. Sirgany said he'll try to get it fixed this week.

Meanwhile, Greene said, the DOT is making plans to widen I-40 in Johnston County to ease the rush-hour jams made worse by the new bypass. But the work is many years off, unfunded and unscheduled.

Enlighten the Road Worrier: blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com. Please include address and daytime phone. Comments, questions and tips welcome.

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