Tata takes steps to ease I-40 project pain around Raleigh

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMay 15, 2013 

— It’s good news for taxpayers when highway bids come in far lower than expected, but Transportation Secretary Tony Tata was not eager in March to approve a repair job expected to give Wake County drivers three years of bad news.

When he finally awarded a contract Tuesday to rebuild 11.5 miles of the I-40/440 Beltline across South Raleigh starting in January, Tata said he had taken steps to reduce the misery for commuters, truckers and other drivers who rely on Raleigh’s busiest freeway.

At least three lanes of the I-40 section will stay open in each direction – instead of only two lanes, as the state Department of Transportation previously had said was likely. That should ease the headaches for 110,000 drivers who now fill four or five lanes every day.

DOT will use social media and message boards to help drivers dodge the worst rush-hour jams, and it will spend $12 million for new transit service – running vanpools and express buses into downtown Raleigh for commuters who live in Johnston County and southern Wake County.

“Our goal is to take 30,000 cars a day off the road,” Tata said Tuesday. “We are going to be pretty aggressive as we look at this transit option.”

And the worst traffic delays will be postponed for more than a year.

The first work will focus on rebuilding I-440 on the Beltline’s southeast corner, from the I-40 split (Exit 301) to the U.S. 64/264 exit in East Raleigh, starting in January. Major construction on the busier I-40 section, from U.S. 1/64 at Cary to the I-40 split, will start in late 2014. The project is to be completed in August 2016.

The contractors will dig out and replace all the existing pavement – a 2-foot depth of concrete slabs topped with asphalt – because the 30-year-old concrete is deteriorating.

Bids come in low

DOT engineers opened bids eight weeks ago for work they figured would cost $193 million. Granite Construction Co., based in Watsonville, Calif., and RS&H, a Charlotte engineering firm, beat the predictions and their competitors with an offer to design and build the project for $130 million.

Tata, who had taken charge of DOT in January, wanted to wait. He challenged veteran DOT engineers to convince him that the disruptive work could not be postponed until Wake commuters have better alternatives.

After all, he said, Raleigh eventually will have a new six-lane bypass, when the Triangle Expressway extends the 540 Outer Loop from Holly Springs east to I-40 at Garner. And someday, Wake County politicians might agree to join Orange and Durham counties in levying a half-cent transit sales tax to launch commuter trains and beefed-up bus service.

“It would have been ideal to delay the project” until transit improvements get rolling and the southern leg of 540 opens, Tata said Tuesday. “Then you would have had a way to dissipate the traffic that comes down 40 every day, in both directions. We know this is a significant project with major impact to nearly everyone who lives and works in or passes through Wake County.”

Federal highway officials were consulted, and pavement consultants took new core samples. They convinced Tata that the deteriorating concrete must be repaired in the next few years, to correct what could become a serious safety hazard.

A chemical process called alkali-silica reaction has caused the underlying concrete to expand and crack during the past three decades. Beltline drivers see smooth asphalt on top, but Tata sees danger underneath.

“Over the last several years, there have been patch jobs done to this section of the road,” Tata said. “And what we’re seeing is that the foundation is crumbling beneath those patch jobs that have been applied.”

Joe Milazzo II, executive director of the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group that lobbies for road and transit improvements, praised Tata for taking a second look at the project plans. He was glad to hear that the worst delays on I-40 would be postponed for a year or more, and that DOT would not squeeze I-40 drivers into two lanes each way.

“That’s the best news for all of us,” Milazzo said, “to have three lanes versus two lanes, that’s terrific.”

Details of the project schedule and new transit service will be rolled out later this year, DOT officials said. Granite and RS&H will rebuild the I-440 section first so that later, when the I-40 repairs are expected to cause bigger traffic problems, the I-440 northern Beltline will offer a viable detour for some drivers.

Granite Construction crews will start by making the Beltline shoulders wider and stronger so they can serve as temporary traffic lanes during construction. They’ll dig out the old concrete, grind it into pebbles, and recycle it as a new foot-thick roadway foundation beneath a new foot-thick layer of asphalt pavement. The alkali-silica reaction won’t cause problems after the concrete is ground up, they said.

Modeling the traffic flow

Traffic engineers at N.C. State University used computer models to confirm that the traffic jams would be reduced if the contractors kept at least three lanes of I-40 open at a time, and Tata said Granite and RS&H promised to make that possible.

Some drivers have complained already that they will endure months of rush-hour slowdowns for a major project that won’t add more lanes to boost the Beltline’s overall traffic capacity.

The plan does include four miles of what engineers call auxiliary lanes, linking the on- and off-ramps at the U.S. 1/64, Gorman Street and Lake Wheeler Road exits. That will reduce the need for some drivers to weave in and out of the exit lanes, and DOT engineers say it will improve traffic flow.

“A lot of people think it doesn’t add capacity, and that does add capacity,” Tata said.

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

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