Cary News

Road Worrier: Beltline widening should fix West Raleigh traffic problems

Looking north, northbound Raleigh Beltline traffic passes under a southbound on-ramp from the Western Boulevard interchange in West Raleigh. Between Wade Avenue and Cary’s Walnut Street, the Beltline needs new pavement, extra lanes, taller bridges and more.
Looking north, northbound Raleigh Beltline traffic passes under a southbound on-ramp from the Western Boulevard interchange in West Raleigh. Between Wade Avenue and Cary’s Walnut Street, the Beltline needs new pavement, extra lanes, taller bridges and more. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Highway designers are packing big changes into a $109.8 million plan for widening a few miles of the Interstate 440 Beltline in West Raleigh – and that will make this one different from other local freeway projects.

The N.C. Department of Transportation added lanes to Interstate 40 in Cary a few years ago, but otherwise the new, wider road isn’t much different from the old one. And the excruciating three-year #BeltlineJam project to rebuild I-40 and I-440 across South Raleigh, to be completed in late 2016, won’t leave it any wider.

But in West Raleigh between Wade Avenue and Cary’s Walnut Street, the Beltline needs everything: new pavement, extra lanes, taller bridges and smart rethinking for a cramped series of difficult interchanges.

This worn-out part of the Beltline was built back in 1960. DOT engineers now have some modern ideas for turning the outmoded freeway into a smoother ride.

The disruptive construction work won’t get underway until 2018. The project planners will settle on the details in 2016.

But they have narrowed their options. They’ll explain their thinking, and they’ll ask what you think, at a public meeting Wednesday. It runs from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Method Community Center, 514 Method Road. You can examine the design options and register your comments online at bit.ly/1pC55yP.

The 3.5-mile stretch is the last remaining four-lane section of the Beltline. It creates a bottleneck for as many as 94,000 cars and trucks each day. DOT will make it six lanes wide.

This is a narrow space. Widening it will grab land from neighboring parts of Meredith College and N.C. State University, and likely from some of the residential neighborhoods crowded close along the freeway. Many of the handsome oaks, pines and sweet gums that shade I-440 will probably be cut down and replaced with noise walls.

Look for a radical upgrade at Western Boulevard. The pretzel logic of this scary interchange picks up drivers from outbound Western Boulevard and drops them abruptly into the fast lane of westbound I-440 – with little margin for error.

Diverging diamond

The fix is a startling new design called the diverging diamond interchange. There are a few of these in operation in North Carolina, and a dozen more are planned at clogged spots including Wake Forest Road at I-440 and Airport Road at I-40.

Here’s how it will work: Drivers on outbound Western Boulevard can exit on the right to take the eastbound I-440 on-ramp, in the usual way. Then the inbound and outbound lanes crisscross each other (with the help of a stoplight) – so, suddenly, as Western runs under the Beltline, everybody is driving on the left-hand side.

Then comes the on-ramp to westbound I-440 – a free-flowing, no-waiting left turn from Western. After this magic is accomplished, the Western lanes crisscross again so everybody is driving, once more, on the right side of the road. These contortions work the same way for drivers traveling the other way on Western Boulevard.

The diverging diamond, hard to understand, must be driven to be believed.

“It makes the left turns, either on or off the ramps, much smoother,” said Jim Dunlop, a DOT congestion management engineer.

Other fixes

Also in the works are plans to fix:

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Wade Avenue and Hillsborough Street

. These two Beltline interchanges, less than one-half mile apart, will be redesigned and linked to each other to reduce the chaotic weaving of drivers trying to get onto I-440 as others try to get off. Two options to be aired Wednesday would replace Beltline ramps with flyover loops soaring above Wade Avenue.



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Ligon Street

. It was reduced in 1960 to a one-lane tunnel beneath the Beltline. It is a tenuous link between a cemetery on one side and neighborhood residents on the other side whose family members are buried there. One option on the table would lift Ligon onto a two-lane bridge over the Beltline.



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Melbourne Road

. In response to neighborhood feedback in 2012, DOT planners decided against closing the Melbourne interchange. But they’ll need more land to make room for an improved exit, and nearby homes are in jeopardy.



• 

Athens Drive and Jones Franklin Road

. There will be a new Athens bridge and Jones Franklin interchange, with possible impact on homes and one or two office parks.



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The I-40 interchange

. The question is not whether to redesign this major-headache intersection, but when: now, as part of the I-440 widening – or in future years when DOT gets around to widening this part of I-40?



Stay tuned.

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