Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Let there be light on the highways, McCrory says

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comFebruary 26, 2013 


Lots of lights are planned for the upcoming I-440 rebuild in South Raleigh, one of several roads where illumination will be added.


— Back when he was mayor of Charlotte, Gov. Pat McCrory used to complain that traveling at night on the city’s freeways – with all their burned-out and broken highway lights – was like “driving on the dark side of the moon.”

He took it statewide in a speech last week when he asked his transportation secretary, Tony Tata, to “please fix the highway lights throughout North Carolina.” It was his second sweeping directive to Tata, already tasked with making good on McCrory’s terse campaign pledge to “fix DMV.”

For years, this was a big deal in Charlotte. City leaders felt neglected by state government, and they added highway lights to their bill of resentments. A TV news crew drove to Raleigh about six years ago to test a theory that the Triangle was awash in nocturnal illumination.

Lyndo Tippett, then the state transportation secretary, chuckled in response. Highway lights in the Triangle? Like, where?

The Road Worrier used to hear frequently from Triangle drivers who had a hard time finding their way at night. They cited reflective lane markers shaved off the pavement by snow plows and never replaced; signs, stripes and edge lines whose reflectivity has faded; and, especially, a dearth of highway lights.

We still have long, harrowing stretches of unlit highways across the Triangle, from two-lane country roads to eight-lane interstates. But the state Department of Transportation is making inroads in the darkness, sometimes with financial help from cities and towns.

In the last eight years, lighting has been incorporated into big road upgrades in Cary (U.S. 1), Wake Forest (N.C. 98) and Durham (Interstate 85). Sometimes a scary safety issue – vandals throwing stuff off the Alston Avenue bridge in Durham, for example, and a man killed while walking across Chapel Hill’s N.C. 54 bypass – has provided the impetus for a few hundred yards of highway lights.

DOT has begun hoisting thousand-watt bulbs on hundred-foot poles over major Triangle freeway interchanges. It’s easier now to find your exit off the newly widened I-40 in West Raleigh. Fayetteville Street is no longer the only bright spot on I-40 in Durham.

Raleigh and DOT balked at illuminating the Beltline in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. But lights have been added during the past decade to interchanges along the northern 540 Outer Loop. The upcoming I-40 and I-440 rebuild across South Raleigh will include lots of lights, too.

Charlotte’s dark-road problem is different from the Triangle’s – not so much a lack of new lights as a failure by DOT to take care of the old ones.

“It makes for a very dangerous situation,” McCrory told News & Observer reporter Rob Christensen last week. “It was a big issue when I was mayor. I could never get them fixed.”

DOT engineers say things have improved in Charlotte. Lights at the interchange McCrory mentioned in his State of the State speech – I-85 at I-77 – have been switched on again.

“There were some lights in the vicinity that were out temporarily, and that was due to a burned-out circuit,” said Louis Mitchell, DOT division engineer for the Charlotte area. “There were issues in years past when he was mayor. We had sections of freeway lighting that were out. But that’s not the case now.”

Jon Nance, DOT’s deputy chief engineer, said the department is “looking at a more comprehensive approach to maintaining our light systems” across the state – so those highway lights won’t burn out again.

Meanwhile, back in the Triangle, the highway with the best illumination is the one that needs it the least.

The N.C. Turnpike Authority ignored DOT recommendations when it splurged on lights for all 18.8 miles of North Carolina’s first modern toll road, the Triangle Expressway. TriEx is sometimes busy at rush hour, but it is six lanes of stillness at night: a clean, well-lighted place.

You can spread your newspaper on the TriEx pavement, and no one will bother you. Take a picnic. It’s a good place to catch up your reading at night, if you don’t mind paying the toll.

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