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NCDOT plans to widen one of the last four-lane stretches of I-40 in the Triangle

The N.C. Department of Transportation proposes to reconfigure the interchange of Interstate 40 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Chapel Hill as part of a larger project to widen I-40 in Orange County.
The N.C. Department of Transportation proposes to reconfigure the interchange of Interstate 40 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Chapel Hill as part of a larger project to widen I-40 in Orange County. NCDOT

Anyone who has ever sat in traffic on westbound Interstate 40 near U.S. 15-501 in the evenings has probably wondered why the highway narrows from three lanes to two at the Orange County line.

Now the state Department of Transportation is planning to fix that, by moving ahead with plans to widen I-40 from four to six lanes between the Durham line and the merger with I-85. The $161 million project will eliminate one of the last four-lane stretches of I-40 in the Triangle, though construction isn’t scheduled to get started until 2023.

NCDOT will present its plans at a public meeting on Monday at the Southern Human Services Center, 2501 Homestead Road in Chapel Hill. The meeting runs from 4 to 7 p.m., and there will be no formal presentation.

The wider highway will largely fit within the existing right-of-way, said Gene Tarascio, the project manager for NCDOT. The main effect on residents who back up to the highway will be increased noise, and NCDOT is still doing studies to determine where sound walls might be needed, Tarascio said.

“There are some preliminary areas,” he said, “but we’re still looking at information to see if there’s potentially other areas.”

One place where NCDOT plans to reconfigure the road is at the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard interchange. It plans to expand the interchange to make room for a new loop to make it easier for westbound I-40 traffic to get on to southbound MLK heading into Chapel Hill.

It also plans to move two roads — Eubanks and Whitfield roads — so they don’t intersect with MLK as close to the ramps where traffic gets on and off I-40.

“It creates more congestion and traffic problems in those areas,” Tarascio said. “So we’re looking into moving Whitfield Road and Eubanks Road out from the interchange more to give proper spacing there.”

Relocating Eubanks Road so that it meets MLK opposite Perkins Drive could result in the loss of several houses off Northwood Drive.

NCDOT began planning for the widening of this 11-mile stretch of I-40 in 2012, Tarascio said. But when the state adopted a new system for determining whether a road should be built or widened, this project didn’t score very well and was shelved, he said.

NCDOT engineers have since determined that the project didn’t appear necessary in part because the backups around U.S. 15/501 weren’t being factored in, Tarascio said. That stretch of I-40 in Durham County is in a different NCDOT division.

Now engineers have accounted for that congestion in their evaluation and expect the widening of I-40 in Orange County to qualify for funding starting next year. If that happens, NCDOT would begin acquiring right-of-way in 2021 and begin construction in 2023.

For more information on the project, including maps showing the proposed widening, go to www.ncdot.gov/news/public-meetings/ and search for “I-3306A.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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