Let’s be glad, for a moment, that state highway contractors chose a relaxed time of the year to begin applying a long-dreaded squeeze to the city’s busiest freeway, the Interstate-40 Beltline.
School is out. Families are away on vacation. It’s summertime, and the rush hour is easy.
So life in the Triangle did not stop on Monday morning when the first truckers and commuters hit that newly narrowed section of I-40 East (the Outer Beltline) from Lake Wheeler Road to Saunders Street. Last week it had four lanes, this week just three.
And over the next few weeks, work crews will close off more miles of inside lanes on sections of I-40 East until they reach the I-440 split in Southeast Raleigh. Then they’ll about-face and do the same on I-40 West (the Inner Beltline), all the way back to Lake Wheeler Road.
By early to mid-September, the full 8.5 miles of I-40 from U.S. 1 in Cary (Exit 293) to the I-440 split (Exit 301) will be locked into three lanes each way. The squeeze will continue until November 2016. You’d better believe we’re going to feel it.
The state Department of Transportation reduced lanes last year on a less-crowded I-440 section of what is a three-year, $130 million project to rebuild 11.5 miles of the Beltline across South Raleigh. Drivers on the busier I-40 portion this year have seen their lanes narrowed and shifted toward the shoulder, but no lanes were closed before this past weekend.
I-40 carries 120,000 cars and trucks each day on its most heavily traveled 4 miles between Lake Wheeler Road and the I-440 split. This is the area, now four and five lanes wide each way, that will be reduced to three lanes over the next four or five weeks.
“It won’t look completely different to commuters from one morning to the next,” DOT spokesman Mike Charbonneau said Monday. “But slowly, over the course of the next several weeks, we expect the impact to continue to build as we bring the Fortify project to its final pattern of three lanes in both directions.”
“Fortify” is DOT’s upbeat name for its dreary mission to reconstruct the entire freeway – alas, without widening it. The contractors are digging out and replacing a concrete roadway foundation that is crumbling because of an unexpected chemical reaction.
By the time they’re done, we’ll come to know the meaning of the Road Worrier’s official hashtag for the project: #BeltlineJam.
Before DOT started closing lanes, the I-40 repair was adding as much as 11 minutes to the average rush-hour trip in the afternoon, when traffic there is usually worse than in the morning.
For the next 15 months or so, traffic engineers warn drivers to expect average trip delays of 30 minutes. That’s 30 minutes on average: better on good days and much worse on others.
The slowdown may come suddenly as commuter traffic swells again with the start of the traditional school year (Aug. 24 in Wake County) and the fall semester at N.C. State University (Aug. 19).
“When the vacations are over, and come September when this (three-lane) pattern is complete, I think we can expect to see more delays,” said Kevin Lacy, DOT’s chief traffic engineer.
The I-440 Beltline across North Raleigh is 3 miles longer than I-40 for most trips, but regular drivers know that the long way sometimes is quicker. Commuters are taking DOT’s advice – exploring alternate routes – and, as a result, I-440 backups are getting worse, too.
Starting this fall, when #BeltlineJam is in full bloom, drivers can expect slower times on other routes, including Wade Avenue, Tryon Road, Western Boulevard, New Bern Avenue and U.S. 70 through Garner.
It’s going to be very claustrophobic. So keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, and keep your seat belt on. It’ll work out.
Kevin Lacy, NCDOT chief traffic engineer
DOT officials and civic leaders have spent the past two years warning us about this and urging commuters and employers to find new rush-hour options.
Triangle-area transit agencies (online at gotriangle.org) now operate 13 express bus routes – several of them started just for the Beltline project – for folks who live in one town and work or attend school in another. State government managers in Raleigh have offered workers bus passes and have talked of other options to reduce the rush-hour flow. Truckers are looking at much longer routes, using the 540 Outer Loop around North Raleigh, as a Beltline bypass.
Along with fewer lanes, Beltline drivers are finding narrower lanes. Except for a few designated wide spots where disabled cars can pull out of traffic, there are no shoulders in the I-40 work zone.
This is a good time to learn how to drive courteously – which is to say, safely. Keep a steady speed, don’t do a lot of lane changing, and don’t ride so close behind the bumper of that car ahead.
“When somebody cuts you off and you put on brakes real fast, that sudden braking will create a shock wave through the system,” Lacy said. “You’ll see the brake lights ripple through the traffic stream.”
Drivers have less margin for error – and more chances for a rear-ender that can stop traffic and make thousands of commuters late for supper.
One of the worst #BeltlineJam backups came on July 1, as the Rolling Stones were preparing to jam on the stage at Carter-Finley Stadium in West Raleigh.
A truck spilled iron oxide on a half-mile stretch of I-40 East near Gorman Street, and police called out a hazardous-material cleanup squad. With narrowed lanes and no shoulders, there was less room for drivers to get around the mess.
The accident backed up I-40 traffic all the way through Cary, so it combined with the extra clog of rock ’n’ roll fans who were looking for their exit. Music lovers making the 20-mile pilgrimage from Chapel Hill said it took them two hours.
Every day for the next 15 months, thousands of Beltline drivers will find themselves shoehorned into narrow outside lanes that once were I-40 shoulders.
“Driving in that far right lane, right up against the safety barrier, is about as comfortable as being in the dentist’s office,” Lacy said. “It’s going to be very claustrophobic.
“So keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, and keep your seat belt on. It’ll work out.”
#BeltlineJam: The story so far
So far this year, the #BeltlineJam construction project has delayed average afternoon rush-hour trips by as much as 10 minutes for drivers in the I-40 work zone on the southern Beltline – and also for drivers who take the I-440 northern Beltline instead.
DOT traffic engineers compared average trip times from before Beltline work began in the fall of 2013 to a two-month period this year, May 6 through July 7. Here are some of their findings:
Morning rush: Only minor morning backups so far. The worst are for westbound drivers approaching Raleigh from Johnston County: Average delays of up to one or two minutes on I-40 West across South Raleigh, and two to four minutes on I-440 West across North Raleigh.
Afternoon rush: The homeward-bound traffic is heavier and so are the backups associated with the construction work. The worst problems are faced by eastbound drivers heading from Research Triangle Park to Raleigh and Raleigh to Johnston County: Delays of 10 to nearly 12 minutes on I-40 East across South Raleigh, and nine to nearly 11 minutes on I-440 East across North Raleigh.