December 16, 2013

Road Worrier: As the #BeltlineJam gets underway, a few Johnston commuters discover the bus

Johnston County commuters finally have the option to ride an express bus to Raleigh, thanks to a three-year Beltline repair project that will slow rush-hour traffic on I-40 and I-440.

Only a few Johnston County commuters took advantage Monday of new express bus service to downtown Raleigh. But they learned right away that buses sometimes go faster than cars.

A 3-year-long project to rebuild 11.5 miles of Raleigh’s southern Beltline began to make itself felt with the first daytime closing of freeway lanes that will stay closed for months at a time. Drivers on I-440 West (the Outer Beltline) in Southeast Raleigh were shoved onto the shoulder and the outside lane for about a mile.

By the end of this week, they’ll be in that squeeze pattern for the full three miles from the I-40 split to the U.S. 64/264 interchange. By mid-January, the two inside lanes of I-440 East as well as I-440 West will be closed for daytime travel. That will make for a longer chokepoint and a bigger slowdown for morning and afternoon traffic.

Get used to it. We’re stuck with this until late 2016, roughly a few weeks after the next gubernatorial election.

On Twitter and other hashtag media, we’re calling this the #BeltlineJam. In the uncensored privacy of our personal automobiles, we might be calling it something else.

The I-440 lane closing adds to the usual morning backups for commuters crawling into Raleigh on I-40 from Johnston County. Instead of two lanes, the ramp from I-40 to I-440 now is one lane.

Sure, there are always scattered problems that make this part of I-40 a real drag on workday mornings. But now, on top of these frequent difficulties, we can expect the continual headaches of rush-hour backups caused every day by these protracted lane closings on the Beltline.

If you were one of those harried commuters going nowhere fast in the far right lane of inbound I-40 Monday morning, you may have noticed something new: A big green bus marked “JCX JOHNSTON CTY EXPRESS” rolling past you – on your right. On the freeway shoulder.

Yes, it’s still illegal for the rest of us to drive on the shoulder. But bus-on-shoulder travel is a new legal option, as of Monday, for the happy few commuters clever enough to park their cars and catch the bus.

Following on the popularity of express commuter buses that connect Raleigh with Chapel Hill, Durham, Wake Forest, Knightdale, and (a combined route) Wendell and Zebulon, Triangle Transit and CAT launched their Johnston County Express on Monday. Every 30 minutes from 6 to 8:30 a.m. a JCX bus leaves a new park-and-ride lot at the Wal-Mart on N.C. 42 and doesn’t stop until it gets to downtown Raleigh. In the afternoon, the return buses leave downtown Raleigh between 3:45 and 6:15 p.m.

Over the next three years, the JCX bus drivers will stay on I-40 for the trip into Raleigh, when they can. Like the rest of us, when I-40 gets especially awful, they’ll seek a less awful path such as U.S. 70 through Garner. And unlike the rest of us, they’ll have the option to creep along the I-40 shoulder when traffic is at a near standstill, as at least one JCX driver did on Monday morning for a few miles between the Clayton Bypass and Jones Sausage Road.

Work crews are busy at night this week in both the eastbound and westbound sides of I-440, where they will rebuild the inside two lanes, each way, first. By next summer the work will move into the outside lanes of I-440, and drivers will be shifted to the rebuilt inside lanes. Then in late 2014 the same process will move to an eight-mile stretch of I-40 across South Raleigh, to be completed in late 2016. Findmore info at the state Department of Transportation project site:

By the way, the Johnston County Express is fare-free through January. After Feb. 3, the regular fares and pass fees apply: $5 for a round-trip, $85 for a 31-day pass. Download a PDF file at for a schedule and map.

So how many smart Johnston County commuters left their cars Monday morning at the Wal-Mart on N.C. 42? On six JCX buses that made the trip into Raleigh, there were only eight riders.

Perhaps on Tuesday morning, there will be a few more.

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