The rebuilding of the Raleigh Beltline will eventually affect 20 percent of Wake County school bus routes and schools across the district, forcing changes in school start times for the next few years until the project is done.
Wake County school administrators told school board members Tuesday that the major impact of the road project likely won’t begin for a year, although schedule changes to accomodate it could come next summer. When the full impact hits it will require major changes to deal with the traffic changes that will impact thousands of students as routes and times are adjusted.
“It will have a direct impact on the Wake County school system and the entire community,” said David Neter, the school system’s chief business officer.
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.
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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.
Neter said the first phase of the work, running until late 2014, is expected to have a minimal impact on the 153,000-student school system. But Phase 2 is a different matter.
During Phase 2, scheduled to run from December 2014 until late 2016, construction and lane closures will entangle the more heavily traveled I-40 Beltline section across South Raleigh.
Neter said the actual impact of Phase 2 won’t be known until the work begins, but it’s expected to be major. He said 223 bus routes traveled on roads affected by Phase 2.
The school system’s main bus depot off the I-40 exit for Rock Quarry Road in Raleigh is in the heart of Phase 2. Neter said they looked at relocating the depot but couldn’t find any cost-effective alternatives.
Neter said schools throughout the county will feel the impact, particularly the magnet schools located inside the Beltline. Neter said the new Vernon Malone Career and College Academy, scheduled to open in August on South Wilmington Street in South Raleigh, will be hit by the changes.
But schools in the western Wake will be affected too as motorists look for alternate routes. State estimates have afternoon rush hour traffic, for instance, increasing by 1,473 cars per hour going westbound on N.C. 55 from I-40 to U.S. 64.
“It was a sobering presentation,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said.
Mike Charbonneau, a DOT spokesman, said transportation officials have been meeting with the school system since September 2012 to discuss the impact of the road project. The state has been encouraging people to consider changes such as using different routes, changing their work hours, working from home and using mass trasnit. The state is providing express bus service.
“We realize that teachers can’t telecommute,” Charbonneau said. “But we’ve been in communication with our business partners to help the situation.”
Neter said administrators expect to recommend changes in school start and dismissal time starting in the 2014-15 school year that begins next summer. The changes could run through the 2016-17 school year.
Schools that start now at about 7:30 a.m., mainly high schools and middle schools, could start even earlier. This comes as some groups have complained that school already starts too soon for sleep-starved teenagers.
Schools that start no earlier than 8 a.m. could start later. This includes most elementary schools that now start at 9:15 a.m. Some parents have complained that the elementary schools already start too late.
Superintendent Jim Merrill said administrators will have to decide whether to begin the changes at the start of next school year or wait until Phase 2 begins. Wake has not historically modified schedules after the school year has started.
The school board adopts schedules for the following school year by the end of March. Neter said they’ll have to make the decision based on incomplete information.
“We’re going to have to be really thoughtful with the bell schedules,” Kushner said. “We’re talking about things that can impact student achievement.”
Neter said that the district’s costs will go up because the system pays bus drivers by the hour. He said that fuel costs for buses will also increase as they idle in traffic.
“They’re going to be paid more to sit in traffic,” he said.
School board member Bill Fletcher asked about having school buses run on the shoulder of I-40, something that’s been permitted for commuter buses. Neter said that the state said would not allow the practice
“It’s an extremely narrow shoulder these buses are driving,” Neter said. “Even if we gave permission, we’d have to evaluate the benefit versus the risk based on the ridership.”
Staff writer Bruce Siceloff contributed to this report.