State highway engineers seemed to take a step backward in September when they closed a lane of westbound Interstate 40 near the Wake-Johnston county line.
They put up a line of orange-and-white barrels to keep cars from using two miles of perfectly good asphalt - on a clogged section of I-40 that needs more traffic capacity, not less.
The state Department of Transportation's chief traffic engineer says the change made the morning drive smoother. Some Triangle commuters disagree.
Brooks Blake, 24, of Garner says she was late to work every day last week. She blames DOT's decision to close that lane.
"I think it made it worse, I really do," Blake said Monday morning as she paused on N.C. 42 to fill her gas tank at a station near the I-40 on-ramp. "Every day I feel like I have to leave home earlier and earlier. It's horrible right now."
DOT tried to undo a problem created in 2008, when it opened the U.S. 70 Clayton Bypass. A two-mile section of I-40 near the new interchange in Johnston County was widened from two to three lanes each way.
Traffic moved faster when cars spread out into that third lane. But there were chronic delays at the bottleneck created where the added lane ended and drivers struggled to merge into two lanes.
To make things worse, this was the same spot where two lanes of U.S. 70 traffic entered I-40. In all, five traffic lanes were squeezed back into two lanes, giving rush-hour drivers less than two miles to make all the necessary compromises. No wonder this became one of the Triangle's worst rush-hour chokepoints.
So DOT engineers decided in September to close that third lane on I-40, and they narrowed U.S. 70 into a single lane before it enters I-40.
There's less merging to do now.
"I actually think it's made traffic better," said Tara Armour, 26, of Garner. "Before, the traffic stopped and you weren't moving at all. You would move every five minutes.
"Now it's slow-moving, but at least you're moving. Because it prevents people from using that third lane as a passing lane."
State and local road planners agree I-40 needs an extra lane here, from N.C. 42 all the way to the Raleigh Beltline. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2017 to widen the two-lane section near the Clayton Bypass interchange.
When that project is finished, there will no longer be a place where rush-hour drivers bound for Raleigh see I-40 grow narrower as the traffic volume grows heavier. Kevin Lacy, the state traffic engineer, says studies this fall show the morning traffic does flow more smoothly most days, and drivers save a few minutes, because that third lane near the Clayton Bypass was closed.
"Last year for four out of five days, the travel time from N.C. 42 through Jones Sausage Road was 10 minutes or longer," Lacy said, describing a nine-mile stretch of I-40. "The high day was around 13 or 14 minutes. What we're seeing now is for three out of five days, it's 10 minutes or shorter."
Lacy has recommended DOT keep the extra lane closed until the widening is finished.