RALEIGH — Carl Williams doesn't plan to drive on the Southern Wake Expressway section of Raleigh's 540 Outer Loop, but he figures it will make his life easier.
Every day, Williams shares clogged lanes on Interstate 40 and the Raleigh Beltline with hordes of commuters heading from homes south and east of Raleigh to jobs west of the city. He looks forward to the day when I-40 drivers who now pass through Raleigh will bypass the city altogether.
"It will certainly take a lot of traffic off my route when I go to work," says Williams, 46, who commutes from South Raleigh to work in Cary. "A lot of that traffic coming into Raleigh will go around, instead."
The N.C. Turnpike Authority recently started engineering and environmental work for the final 30-mile southern and eastern sections of the Outer Loop, reviving a key Wake County road project that had languished for years.
Wake leaders acknowledged in 2005 that the 540 loop might never be finished if they held out for a share of shrinking state and federal road money. They agreed, grudgingly, that the Turnpike Authority could collect tolls from drivers to pay for construction.
The southern and eastern sections stayed on the back burner until the Turnpike Authority got bulldozers rolling last summer on the western stretch -- now set for completion in 2012 as part of North Carolina's first modern toll road, the 18-mile Triangle Expressway.
Construction on the southern link, from Holly Springs to Garner and I-40, could start by 2014, followed eventually - no timetable has been mentioned - by the eastern leg from Garner to Knightdale.
'TriEx' a 6-lane option
The Triangle Expressway will extend the 540 Outer Loop south from Research Triangle Park to Holly Springs. RTP workers willing to pay for the option will have a six-lane expressway alternative to rush-hour congestion on N.C. 55.
TriEx, as the road will be known, will get busier after it reaches beyond Holly Springs to hook up with I-40 at its worst bottleneck east of Raleigh - near Garner and the U.S. 70 Clayton Bypass.
A lot of that truck and commuter traffic backing up on I-40 now could start moving on this new southern route by 2019, the Turnpike Authority says.
'So many ... are killed'
Heather Hefner says she can't wait. She hates the stress and the danger as she drives I-40 west from Raleigh each morning. Just the other day, Hefner sat in her car for an hour while crews cleared the wreckage of a fatal crash near Harrison Avenue.
"It's scary knowing that so many people are killed on that stretch of I-40," said Hefner, 26. "The anxiety gets to me more than the delays.
"I listen to the radio and wonder how many minutes I'm going to be late because of where the accidents are. I hope the bypass will bring the accident rate down."
Traffic engineers say it's hard to predict how individual roads will be affected by the change. Williams expects to see lighter traffic on U.S. 401 and Lake Wheeler Road in southern Wake.
Forecasters say the completed 540 Loop will speed up traffic enough to have a countywide impact. They predict that combined driving times for all Wake drivers will be cut 4 percent.
A lot of work will have to be done before this happens.
Early this year the Turnpike Authority started the process of picking the best path and conducting environmental studies for the Southern Wake Expressway. Later will come traffic and revenue studies to determine whether the loop extensions would attract enough paying customers to cover most of the expense.
The state took legal steps in 1996 to protect a possible corridor for the Southern Wake Expressway, blocking new subdivisions and other development on land that might be taken later for road.
That means Apex landowner Patricia Johnson has been thwarted for 14 years. Strip centers and townhouses sprouted during the 1990s near her 12-acre mobile-home park on Holly Springs and Kildaire Farm roads. But the law prevented her from cashing in on development offers while the state pondered whether to take her land for the Southern Wake Expressway.
"Developers had been calling me every few months to ask, 'What's DOT doing?'" said Johnson, 60. "But they haven't been calling me as much lately because of what's going on with the economy."
Fighting a 'Catch 22'
Three years ago Johnson began a legal process that she thinks will force the state this year either to buy her land or to let her develop it.
Last week she was encouraged by the sight of engineers surveying her land for the Turnpike Authority. Once the agency marks the Southern Wake Expressway path, a handful of new expressway interchanges will become focal points for more economic development between Holly Springs and Garner.
Work on the Eastern Wake Expressway is several more years in the future. It will be 2013 at the earliest before the Turnpike Authority identifies its preferred route.
Jennifer Harris, the Turnpike Authority's planning and environmental director, said the eastern section will provide a valuable link between I-40 in southern Wake and U.S. 64 at Knightdale.
"It's definitely a huge contribution to the transportation network," Harris said.
Save time going east
James P. Laurie III, a North Raleigh lawyer, will gladly pay tolls to use the Eastern Wake Expressway.
When Laurie leaves home in the morning for a court date in Eastern North Carolina, he never knows how long he'll be delayed by weekday traffic on Falls of Neuse Road or Six Forks Road and the Beltline.
If the 540 Loop is completed some time before Laurie, 47, retires from practicing, he won't worry so much about getting to court on time.
"It will save me the better part of 20 or 30 minutes in the morning getting out of town," Laurie said. "I'll be thrilled. If the road is efficient and it gets me where I'm going, I won't mind paying for it."
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