Commuters will begin to feel the long pain of a three-year freeway repair project sometime this week, when they will find four lanes of Interstate 440 West traffic at the southeast corner of Raleigh’s Beltline squeezed into two lanes.
Drivers on this part of the outer Beltline will be pushed into the outside lane and the roadway shoulder, which will serve as a new second traffic lane during the construction project. The same change will take effect a few days later on I-440 East, the inner Beltline.
This is not a short-term inconvenience. This corner of the busy Beltline will be reduced to two lanes each way, 24 hours a day, for the next year.
Road crews will spend the coming months ripping out the two inside lanes in each direction for three miles of I-440 between the I-40 split and the U.S. 64-264 interchange in East Raleigh. They’ll dig deep to remove deteriorating concrete pavement and then put down a new roadway.
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Sometime next year, in either late spring or early summer, the inside lanes of I-440 will be finished, and the work will move to the outside lanes. Then will come more of the same, for two years, on the more heavily traveled I-40 Beltline section across South Raleigh.
It’s a $130 million project to rebuild 11.5 miles of the southern Beltline. The southeast corner of the I-440 Beltline carries 91,000 cars and trucks each day. The lane reduction is expected to generate regular traffic backups, especially during rush hour.
DOT announced last Tuesday that the lane closing schedule would take effect Thursday morning. But a day later DOT officials decided to postpone the closure as engineers began considering possible adjustments to smooth the traffic flow and reduce the expected congestion for Beltline drivers as they enter the I-440 construction zone from Interstate 40.
Upgraded bus service for commuters from Johnston County and eastern Wake County is scheduled to start Dec. 16. And the state Board of Transportation was expected last week to approve a $55,000 study that will gauge the likely passenger demand – based on the expected Beltline congestion – for rush-hour trains that could take commuters from Selma to Raleigh, with stops in Clayton and Garner.
‘Fortify’ challenge ahead
DOT officials have been warning for months that this day would come. Now they hope drivers will find a way to avoid the new bottleneck. They’re publishing their encouragement, along with construction updates and links to transit information, on websites for the dreary repair job they have branded with an upbeat name: “Fortify.”
“We encourage motorists to use the Fortify website, to friend us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, to begin considering those alternative work schedules and transit options, and other options that are available to take motorists off this section of I-440 and help us reduce congestion once these lane closures are in place,” said Dennis Jernigan, who oversees construction for the Department of Transportation in Wake and neighboring counties in DOT’s Division Five.
Commuters, truckers and other drivers are being urged to find alternate routes and other options – and that means extra traffic will shift onto other major commuter roads including U.S. 70, New Bern Avenue, the northern I-440 Beltline and the northern 540 Outer Loop.
Similar construction and lane closings are planned for the I-40 portion of the Beltline across South Raleigh starting in December 2014 and continuing for two more years until the end of 2016. Parts of this freeway have four to five lanes each way to carry as many as 130,000 vehicles a day, and the expected traffic impacts will be worse there than on I-440.
But I-40 drivers will notice the I-440 lane closings that start this month, too. Where traffic on I-40, both westbound and eastbound, now has two lanes to enter I-440 West, that will be reduced to one lane each way. That could cause slowdowns for I-40 drivers approaching I-440 from both directions. Jernigan said he didn’t think it would be a big problem.
“We don’t anticipate that the work on I-440 is going to cause a significant backup on I-40,” he said.
Studying commuter trains
DOT officials raised the prospect last year of starting rush-hour train service to help some Johnston County commuters avoid the Beltline construction jam. Now DOT is going to use a regional traffic computer model to estimate how many commuters would opt for the trains and how much they would pay to help finance the service.
The trains would use N.C. Railroad tracks and the existing Amtrak stations in Raleigh and Selma, stopping at temporary stations in Clayton and Garner.
“This is a DOT initiative to try and mitigate this major congestion problem that we all face regarding the Raleigh Beltline project,” said Scott Saylor, president of the N.C. Railroad, a private company owned by the state. “It’s going to be a major topic in the region for several years. So we are supportive of looking for solutions to that traffic issue, whatever they may be.”
If the study shows promising numbers, a lot of things would have to work out right in a relatively short time in order to start the trains running while the construction project is still going and they’re still needed, said Paul Worley, the DOT Rail Division director.
DOT would have to come to terms with the N.C. Railroad and Norfolk Southern Railroad, which leases the tracks for freight service – and find a way to pay for it. Amtrak runs four passenger trains between Raleigh and Selma each day, and Norfolk Southern runs five to eight freight trains.
“We don’t want to get people’s hopes up about this,” Worley said. “It would be way too early to say we’re optimistic or to say we’re proposing commuter rail service.”