Buses, trains might alleviate Beltline construction woes

Buses, trains considered for relief during three-year Beltline project

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comDecember 5, 2012 

— As they prepare for an epic traffic jam that will strangle Raleigh’s busiest freeway during three years of construction, state and local transportation officials are considering a flurry of options to divert thousands of cars and trucks each day with vanpools, flex schedules for commuters, express buses on the freeway shoulder – and maybe even a few trains.

The state Department of Transportation will start work next summer on a complete rebuild of the southern Beltline, upgrading interchanges and replacing all the pavement on 11 miles and eight lanes of Interstates 40 and 440.

Drivers will be squeezed into two lanes each way for months at a time on a road that now carries 130,000 vehicles each day. DOT engineers are aiming to cut that number by 40,000.

They’re working with shippers and local governments on ideas for moving traffic to alternate routes, including the northern Beltline and I-540. They want employers to shift workers to flex schedules so they’re not crowding onto I-40 and I-440 at the same time each day. And they’re looking for public transportation options to thin the herds of men and women driving solo in their cars.

The ideas about what to do are running ahead of the answers to questions about what it will cost and how it will be paid for. Transportation officials hope to lay out some solutions, with prospects for funding them, before work starts in the summer and the first Beltline lane closings start in the fall.

Wally Bowman, who oversees DOT operations in Wake and six neighboring counties, is urging public and private employers to get serious about more alternatives to the 8-to-5 routine. They might let employees work four 10-hour days each week, start the morning shift at 7 or 9:30 a.m., or telework from home a few days a week.

“Changing work schedules will probably do more for us than anything,” Bowman said.

“If you don’t do something with an alternate work schedule, your folks are going to be late to work. This is going to be a regularly recurring issue during the life of the project. And I think you’ve got to plan for that.”

Much of the effort will focus on Johnston County, with little transit service now for an estimated 44,000 residents who have jobs in Wake, Durham and Orange counties. Regional transit agencies are mapping possible routes for new rush-hour buses to Raleigh, Research Triangle Park and Durham. They have identified possible spots for park-and-ride lots, where commuters would board the buses.

“We’ve talked about some sort of express bus service from the south into downtown Raleigh,” said Mike Kennon, Raleigh’s transportation operations manager. “That’s probably very doable.”

A pilot program on I-40 in Durham County allows transit bus drivers to drive around traffic jams by using the freeway shoulder, and DOT plans to extend that option to the southern Beltline.

Meanwhile, Paul Morris, DOT’s deputy secretary for transit, said his agency is weighing prospects for an ad hoc system of commuter trains that could start each morning as far east as the Amtrak station in Selma. Along with the Amtrak depots in Raleigh, Cary and Durham, DOT planners have identified possible stops where they could build temporary rail platforms at population and work centers including Clayton, Garner, N.C. State University and RTP.

DOT is looking at two ways to provide this new passenger rail service between Johnston County and RTP. The first would be to extend the existing Amtrak Piedmont route between Charlotte and Raleigh over an N.C. Railroad track that now carries the Amtrak Carolinian to New York each day, via Selma.

The second would be to add new commuter service between Selma and RTP. Wake County now is considering a proposed commuter train route along that corridor, from west Durham to east Garner. Durham voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 2011 that would help pay their share, but Wake County commissioners have not said whether voters here will be asked to consider levying a transit tax.

There are plenty of obstacles that would have to be overcome to get a few trains running within the next year or two. Riders would need bus service and other options to get from the rail platform to their offices. Railroad officials would have to get their hands on a locomotive or two, and a few passenger cars.

“Norfolk Southern would have to be consulted and assured that additional trains would not interfere with freight trains’ schedules,” said Scott Saylor, president of the N.C. Railroad, which leases its tracks to the freight carrier. “That’s an important topic.”

Morris said DOT planners are learning from other states where new rail service was launched quickly to mitigate problems caused by big road projects.

“We know from the experience of others that have done it that it takes a year or a year and a half before a temporary service can start from scratch,” Morris said. “If we augment the Piedmont route, it could be as little as six to 12 months.”

Saylor was cautious about the prospects.

“I think it’s too early to say,” Saylor said. “I think we would all want some ridership and cost data, for example.”

At a Board of Transportation meeting Wednesday, DOT rail planners gave a preliminary capital cost estimate of $38 million to $56 million for trains, stations and other up-front costs.

Unlike buses, vanpools and flex schedules, the trains would give some commuters the option to avoid I-40 and I-440 altogether.

“While that’s the most expensive” of the transit options, Morris said in an interview, “that’s also the most cost effective. Because it gets you out of that traffic congestion.”

Board member Nina Szlosberg-Landis of Raleigh liked the idea.

“It’s interesting that we may be able to start commuter rail earlier than we might have otherwise, as a result of this project,” Szlosberg-Landis said.

Bowman said the I-40 and I-440 repair project will cause the worst and most prolonged traffic disruption of any DOT job ever in the Triangle area, because drivers will see the existing traffic lanes cut in half.

But after the southern Beltline has been rebuilt in 2016, DOT has more plans that also will cause years of traffic delays – in a pair of projects at either end of this one. They’ll start widening I-40 south from Raleigh into Johnston County, and they’ll start widening I-440 in West Raleigh.

So Triangle commuters, truckers and other drivers might want the options of flex schedules, vanpools and trains for a few years longer, Morris said.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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