As the state prepares to replace two aging Capital Boulevard bridges, city leaders are backing a major overhaul to the traffic pattern at the Peace Street interchange – a $36 million project that would reshape downtown’s northern gateway.
The designs for new interchanges on Capital at Wade Avenue and Peace Street head to another public hearing within the next month. About $33 million in federal highway funds will cover basic replacements to the 58-year-old bridges, and the state Department of Transportation wants Raleigh to pay for any further upgrades.
Last month, the Raleigh City Council voiced initial support for spending about $11 million for the Peace Street upgrades, which would improve traffic flow and open up new development possibilities. But at Wade Avenue, the city will ask the state to keep the current traffic pattern and avoid paying $15 million for an upgrade.
Property owners along Peace Street are supportive of the changes. “We’re excited about it,” said Cross Williams, whose family has owned land there for decades. “I think it will create some buildable lots and help reestablish that section of Peace Street.”
The sharply curved ramps on the north side of Peace Street would be removed. Drivers headed north on Capital would enter and exit Peace Street on a straight ramp that emerges in front of Jersey Mike’s Subs. Southbound Capital Boulevard traffic would turn right onto Johnson Street – just south of Peace – then turn right again onto Harrington Street, which would be extended north to reach Peace Street at a new traffic light by Peace Camera.
“The secret weapon for that new interchange design is converting what is today a difficult left turn into a modified right turn,” said Eric Lamb, the city’s transportation planning manager.
Lamb says the new design would ease rush-hour traffic headed toward the state government complex while opening up the northeastern corner of downtown’s Glenwood South district. “Those areas along Harrington are a little cut off from Glenwood today,” he said. “That provides potential to give that area more exposure.”
The interchange upgrades will help downtown’s growth as separate districts like Glenwood South and Seaboard Station – to the east along Peace Street – blend together. While Capital Boulevard will remain limited to cars, Peace and its side streets will become more pedestrian and bike friendly.
Finch’s a loss
But the project’s growth also comes with a cost: Six or so buildings will need to be demolished to make way for the new bridge. The most notable loss is Finch’s, a classic southern diner that’s been in business since the 1940s.
Because the new bridge will be built next to the old one, Capital Boulevard traffic will soon be running across the site where the restaurant and its metal drive-in canopies stand today. The state will likely buy up the property in 2015; the owner of Finch’s has said she’s unsure whether she’ll reopen at another location.
Also likely to face the wrecking ball next year: the Raleigh Hitch business behind Finch’s, two commercial buildings along North Harrington Street and the Sudz Car Wash on Peace Street. State transportation officials aren’t yet sure about the strip of traditional storefronts housing Watkins Shoe Shop and Rollins Cleaners.
“Those are shown as being impacted, but as we get further along, there’s a chance we can make some changes,” DOT engineer Derrick Weaver said.
When construction starts in 2016, commuters using Capital Boulevard could confront some traffic hassles during the 18-month process. The northern artery into downtown will remain open, but it’ll have two lanes instead of three in each direction at Peace – a squeeze for the 55,000 cars and trucks that use the road daily.
“We expect local traffic to take some other routes, maybe use Glenwood Avenue instead of coming down Capital,” Weaver said.
Wade redesign rejected
While the Peace Street interchange would get a major overhaul, Raleigh leaders so far aren’t backing a new design at Wade, which would cost the city an additional $15 million.
The “enhanced” interchange at Wade would involve a diamond-shaped interchange, with straight ramps on and off northbound Capital. The change would be pedestrian friendly and offer better access to rail yards on the east side of the interchange, but it could create rush-hour jams: instead of a free-flowing ramp to Wade, drivers heading out of downtown would hit a stoplight where’d they turn left.
“We’ve had concerns about the ability of a signal to handle that volume of traffic,” Lamb said. “We feel like the expenditure (of a new design) is much more justified at Peace Street than Wade Avenue.”
Keeping the current Wade design will save money because the bridge will still be two lanes wide. Drivers will see some improvements when the new bridge opens, as the ramp’s sharp curves will be softened slightly.
After the next public hearing in late March or early April, DOT will draft a formal agreement with Raleigh for its share of the Peace Street project. The city plans to use funds from the $75 million transportation bond referendum approved last year. DOT will begin buying up property next year, with the construction work to begin in 2016.
In addition to the new interchanges, the work will give the southern end of Capital a more attractive median, replacing the concrete barriers that separate traffic now. The improvements will fit with Raleigh’s long-term plans to spruce up the road from downtown to the Interstate 440 Beltline.