Starting next year, folks who ride the bus to work on Interstate 40 won't always have to sit through traffic jams like, you know, common car drivers.
They'll win new privileges in a pilot program planned for a 12-mile stretch of I-40 in Durham County. When traffic is stopped or crawling at speeds below 35 mph, transit buses will be allowed to bypass congestion by driving around it - slowly - on the freeway shoulder.
Triangle Transit and the state Department of Transportation expect to start the bus-on-shoulder program by mid-2012. It will run along both sides of I-40 from U.S. 15-501 to the Durham Freeway, continuing for eastbound traffic only from the Durham Freeway to Page Road.
If it works well there, DOT could turn shoulders into cheap new bus paths along more miles of I-40 and on other congested freeways across the state.
Minnesota started doing this 20 years ago. Now the state lets transit buses use nearly 300 miles of freeway shoulders around Minneapolis and St. Paul. The option helps buses stay on schedule at rush hour.
And it gives commuters a chance to see public transportation in a different light.
"It is a nice advertisement for our service as the bus rolls down the shoulder past people who are waiting there in their cars," said John Siqveland, spokesman for the Twin Cities' Metro Transit. "Imagine you have 40 commuters on that bus, bypassing 40 cars as they travel safely along the shoulder up to 15 mph faster than the general traffic."
Eleven states have some kind of bus-on-shoulder program. It requires a freeway with shoulders wide enough and pavement strong enough to support bus traffic.
Here's how it will work in the I-40 pilot effort, DOT and Triangle Transit officials say:
The shoulder will be an option for transit bus drivers only when traffic has slowed below 35 mph.
The bus must yield to all other vehicles - including disabled cars on the shoulder, emergency vehicles and cars using the on- and off-ramps.
The bus can travel on the shoulder no more than 15 mph faster than traffic, and no faster than 35 mph.
"At lower speeds there is less risk for any safety implications," said Meredith McDiarmid, an engineer who oversees traffic systems operations for DOT. "At low speeds, as we all know, folks can react better."
Triangle Transit served 1.28 million riders during the fiscal year that ended June 30, a 17.9 percent increase over the preceding year. One route likely to benefit from the shoulder option is Triangle Transit's rush-hour express between Chapel Hill and Raleigh.
"They're going to be on time more often, and they'll have an advantage over people who are driving their cars and stuck in the stop-and-go traffic," said John Tallmadge, Triangle Transit commuter resources director.
Tallmadge figures bus drivers are likely to use the shoulder when traffic is snarled by a crash or bad weather, but perhaps less likely during routine rush-hour delays.
The start date has not been announced. Triangle Transit bus drivers will receive training to learn when and how to drive on the shoulder. Signs will be posted along I-40 and at on-ramps to mark the shoulders where buses are allowed to drive.
"We want to make sure people know that when you see a bus over there, it's because they're supposed to be there - and the general motoring public is not," McDiarmid said.
The bus-on-shoulders project is the brainchild of an interagency group, chaired by McDiarmid, that weighs low-cost approaches to ease the flow on I-40 in the Triangle area. The group also is looking at steps to unclog several I-40 interchanges.
And next year it will launch a study to determine whether ramp meters - little traffic signals that control the flow of cars entering a freeway - would be a good fit for I-40 at rush hour.