Raleigh’s Beltline was built to make it easier for people to get around in cars. For everybody else, the Beltline makes it harder.
Encircling the city core with a wide strip of pavement, it creates a formidable barrier for people on foot. There are no sidewalks on nearly two-thirds of the interchanges, underpasses and overpasses that carry city streets across the Interstate 40/440 Beltline.
So if you live off Rock Quarry Road outside the Beltline, you might not risk a stroll across the bridge to explore Watson’s Flea Market, just inside the Beltline. Likewise, if you’re inside the Beltline in that neighborhood, you’ll think twice before you walk your kids in the other direction to check out books from the Southgate Community Library.
Now the City Council has agreed to study the Rock Quarry interchange and five other I-40 overpasses to figure out the best way to make them accessible for people who simply want to walk from one side of the Beltline to the other. The others are Trailwood Drive and Lake Dam, Avent Ferry and Buck Jones roads along the southern Beltline, and Trenton Road over I-40 just west of the Beltline.
“They just don’t have a safe area for pedestrians to cross,” said Chris Johnson, a city of Raleigh engineer overseeing the project. “We would prefer to have the sidewalk raised, or at least a Jersey barrier there, so traffic isn’t driving right next to pedestrians.”
These are mostly two-lane roads, some of them with wide paved shoulders that could provide plenty of room to add sidewalks.
“They don’t have any kind of pedestrian safety railing or barrier to prevent people from falling off the edge,” Johnson said.
This didn’t seem important in the 1980s, when the southern Beltline was built through mostly rural areas on the city’s south side.
But the landscape has changed since then. Today, there are plenty of people in apartment villages, subdivisions and strip shopping centers that hug both sides of the Beltline.
“When there’s limited access for pedestrians, that can create a larger barrier between neighborhoods than one might think,” said Matt Tomasulo, an advocate of shoe-leather transportation known for his hand-made “Walk Raleigh” directional signs.
And there are people making that precarious walk over the Beltline bridges every day.
“Whether they’re made for walking or not, people still walk across them,” said Alan Wiggs, a North Raleigh engineer and cyclist who chairs the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission. “They have to get from Point A to Point B.”
They walk north across the Avent Ferry Road bridge to enjoy Raleigh’s beautiful Lake Johnson Park. They walk south on the Buck Jones Road bridge to do business at Cary’s South Hills Shopping Center.
You can see the dirt trails they’ve made on the grassy shoulders of these roads as they approach the bridges.
“It looks like goats made paths on the side of the road, but it’s been worn down by people,” Wiggs said. “If you want to know where to build sidewalks ... look at the goat paths, to see where people actually walk.”
Things have improved in the past few years, with new sidewalks completed recently on Lake Boone Trail under I-440 and Poole Road over it.
The Reedy Creek Greenway bridge built in 2005 across I-440 near Wade Avenue provided a big escape hatch for people yearning to travel outside the Beltline without their cars.
Now on nice weekends you can see families walk and pedal from Meredith College to the N.C. Museum of Art and beyond, to Umstead State Park. Turn left at Umstead, and you’re on Trenton Road, which crosses I-40 a mile away.
If the city study confirms the Trenton bridge can be upgraded to provide safe passage for cyclists and pedestrians, this will provide another key link to an uninterrupted greenway network between Raleigh and Cary.
The city will spend about $2 million, mostly from a federal clean-air grant, to see whether the six bridges are wide enough and strong enough for the addition of sidewalks. The money should also cover the cost of making the actual improvements on two or three bridges, Johnson said. The feasibility study is to be finished by the end of 2013, with construction in 2014 and 2015.
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