Road Worrier

Road Worrier: In a jam, bus turns shoulder into the I-40 fast lane

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJanuary 22, 2013 

There were a few slippery spots on Interstate 40 in Durham on Friday morning after a light overnight snow, and more than a few wrecks.

I knew we’d be in stop-and-crawl mode for quite a while when I saw the prognosis on an overhead message board. The Wade Avenue exit was 12 miles away, it said; “EST TIME 46 - 56 MINS.”

Oh boy. This would have been a good morning to ride the bus.

It was the first icy rush hour since the July launch of the bus-on-shoulder program, which allows transit drivers to ease their way around traffic jams by using the freeway shoulder.

The option kicks in when traffic slows below 35 mph. Bus drivers may travel on the shoulder up to 15 mph faster than freeway traffic, and no faster than 35 mph.

Sure enough, here came a tall, green Triangle Transit bus on the Chapel Hill-Raleigh express CRX route. It rolled past three lanes of us car-bound commuters at maybe 17 mph. The shoulder looked like the fast lane.

There were skeptics last year when the state Department of Transportation authorized a pilot bus-on-shoulder program on 10 miles of I-40 in Durham County, plus two more miles on the eastbound shoulder from N.C. 147 through Research Triangle Park to Page Road.

Wouldn’t a big bus lumbering on and off the shoulder become a magnet for collisions with cars driving on I-40 and its on- and off-ramps?

Roger Ekstrom of Raleigh, a regular CRX rider, shared these worries at first. Now he’s a fan of the bus-on-shoulder option.

“It got backed up last Thursday afternoon,” said Ekstrom, 30, a dual degree student in graduate programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University. “We just slid over onto the shoulder pretty easily after everything had slowed down to a crawl at best. We went along the shoulder for a good ways, probably a few miles.

“We pretty much leapfrogged over the sluggish part, crossed two or three of the on-ramps and exit ramps without any problem whatsoever. Went along at a nice 35 mph and slipped back into traffic right when it was starting to pick up again,” Ekstrom said.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. The bus-on-shoulder thing happens only when freeway traffic is slowed to back-street speeds, so everybody should have plenty of time to avoid mishap.

Triangle Transit drivers have used the shoulder option 223 times in the first six months, mostly during the afternoon rush and mostly in the eastbound lanes. They have a perfect safety record so far: zero accidents, according to Meredith McDiarmid, an engineer who oversees traffic systems operations for DOT.

“So far, we’ve achieved our goals at least from a safety perspective,” McDiarmid said. With drivers using the maneuver only once or twice a day, it’s hard to show a measurable effect on bus service. But some riders say their buses seem less likely to run late nowadays.

“Usually I would say we’re rarely later than about 10 minutes either way,” said Erin Crouse, 27, of Chapel Hill.

The pilot program will wrap up sometime this spring. DOT seems likely to extend it to even busier stretches of I-40 and other freeways around the state.

When DOT begins a dreaded repair project this summer that will strangle traffic for three years on Raleigh’s I-40/I-440 southern Beltline, the rush-hour delays also will get worse on other roads as Beltline drivers look for new routes.

“We’re anticipating there is going to be much greater congestion on I-40 between Raleigh and Research Triangle Park,” said John Tallmadge, Triangle Transit commuter resources director. “So we’d like to be able to use bus-on-shoulder on that area, and all along Wade Avenue to Blue Ridge Road.”

Look for buses on the southern Beltline shoulders, too – but probably not until the rebuild is finished in 2016, Tallmadge said. During construction work, when several lanes are closed at a time, the shoulders frequently will be converted for use as temporary traffic lanes.

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