Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Expect delays, for a very long time, on southern Beltline

$168 million makeover on southern leg means a three-year traffic jam

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJuly 23, 2012 

  • Alternate routes Don’t look for detour signs. There won’t be any. The state Department of Transportation says drivers who rely on Raleigh’s Interstate 40/I-440 southern Beltline should find other paths, starting next summer, when a three-year construction project gets under way. Some DOT suggestions: • Wade Avenue and the I-440 northern Beltline, for trips across Raleigh. • The northern I-540 Outer Loop for longer trips across the region. If your journey takes you from Research Triangle Park to I-95, try I-540 and U.S. 64/U.S. 264 – instead of I-40. • U.S. 70 through Garner and Hammond Road for trips to downtown Raleigh from Johnston County and points east. Learn more about plans for rebuilding the southern Beltline at DOT’s project website:

We’re less than a year away from the start of construction on a total rebuild of Raleigh’s southern Beltline. It’s not too early to worry about how commuters, truckers, school-bus drivers and other travelers will survive this three-year traffic jam.

The state Department of Transportation expects to spend $168 million to replace every speck of concrete and asphalt pavement on the lanes, ramps and shoulders of the 30-year-old expressway, from U.S. 1/64 at Cary to U.S. 64/264 on the east side of Raleigh.

With three to five lanes each way, these 11 miles of Interstates 40 and 440 carry as many as 110,000 cars and trucks through south Raleigh each day. All that traffic will be crammed into two lanes each way – day and night – for months at a time during construction, DOT says.

That’s right: Two lanes. Three years.

Have we ever faced anything this bad for so many drivers, and for so long? I don’t think so.

DOT is speaking up about how commuters should look for other routes, or park their cars and find shared rides.

“If you can ride a bus rather than ride a car, get 50 people in a bus rather than 50 cars sitting in traffic, that will be an improvement,” said Wally Bowman, who oversees DOT operations for Wake and six neighboring counties. “It’s not a whole lot, but every little bit will help.”

Employers should think about giving workers flexible schedules and the option to work from home, DOT says, to diffuse the rush-hour glut. Truckers on Interstate 40 should map out new routes to avoid the Raleigh mess altogether, because they’ll save time even if they go miles out of their way.

“We’re trying to get people who are through-traffic – not locals coming into the area and then going back out – people going all the way through, say from Greensboro to I-95, to just avoid the area,” said Michael Penney, a DOT planning engineer.

More help needed

This is sensible advice, as far as it goes. But it won’t go far enough to ward off three years of sustained misery, while one of the busiest interstates in North Carolina is reduced to roughly half its capacity.

We’re going to need more help with this. How about a comprehensive approach involving smart people from government and business, Research Triangle Park and N.C. State University?

And if drivers hope to find dependable routes each day, they’ll need clear, real-time information about traffic conditions – better than DOT’s 511 service, please – perhaps including a dedicated radio channel and website. More vanpools and buses to augment the two CAT and Triangle Transit routes that run down I-40 now.

And while we’re aiming high, let’s put out the welcome mat for a benevolent visitor from another planet, bearing apps. This is just the kind of thing the humanoid alien Klaatu wanted to help us out with in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (I mean the Michael Rennie version, 1951) before things went bad.

Usually when DOT plans such a big road project, we can look forward to added lanes that will serve more traffic. Not this time.

A few auxiliary lanes will be added, to link the on-ramp at one interchange to the off-ramp at the next. Some bridge repairs are planned, too.

But the southern Beltline project is basically a complete pavement replacement. The contractor will dig 2 feet down to pull out the worn-out concrete slabs that have been there since the early 1980s.

Fixing the cracks

This part of the Beltline is afflicted with what pavement wonks call ASR: alkali-silica reaction. DOT built this roadway with concrete that has cement with high alkaline levels, plus sand and gravel with high levels of silica.

When Bowman described how this ASR combination makes the concrete expand and crack, I realized that he was explaining the unusual cracks drivers noticed on the southern Beltline over the past decade or so.

They’re not like the common cracks and potholes we see on other Triangle roads. They’re more like the widening fissures on a bread loaf swelling in the oven, or a juicy bratwurst on the grill.

Engineers identified the ASR problem in roads, walls and runways across the country about 25 years ago, Bowman said, after the southern Beltline was built.

This is why DOT spent a few million dollars four years ago to plug cracks, dig out some of the worst concrete, and cover the old pavement with a thin layer of asphalt. That job was a stopgap measure, buying time until DOT had enough money for the full-scale fix.

DOT spent another $200,000 repairing southern Beltline cracks last year. You can see new ones here and there in the asphalt today.

We won’t have details about the construction schedule until next spring. That’s when DOT will award the design-build contract to a team of engineers and builders. The dreary repair scenario – a job lasting three years, with all but two lanes closed for prolonged periods – is DOT’s best guess about how the contractor will decide to do the job, Bowman said.

The winning bidder will be responsible for finishing the work as quickly as possible, and with the least horrendous impact on traffic.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to imagine a future when the Triangle will be able to absorb an I-40 meltdown without so much pain – even without Klaatu’s intervention.

If DOT wins federal approval to extend the I-540 Outer Loop across southern Wake County from Holly Springs to I-40 near Garner (as part of the Triangle Expressway toll road), it will complete a new six-lane bypass around Raleigh.

And if the Wake County commissioners ever allow voters to decide on a proposed half-cent sales tax for major transit improvements, we could see a near doubling of local bus service, including new links between Raleigh and the outlying towns. And rush-hour commuter rail service from West Durham through Raleigh to Garner.

Starting next summer, those commuter trains might look like a great idea.

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