Midtown Raleigh News

School buses will try to dodge Beltline delays, and so will the rest of us

As Wake County school officials make plans to adjust bus routes and school schedules to accommodate traffic delays expected with a three-year Beltline repair project, other drivers can expect to face their own tough decisions, too.

The first lane closings began this week on the 3-mile Interstate 440 curve at the Beltline’s southeast corner. But the worst traffic impacts won’t start until late 2014, when construction work shifts to the busier 8-mile I-40 Beltline section across South Raleigh.

“Everybody that is a regular customer of I-40 just needs to think about what some likely good options would be,” said Ed Johnson, executive director of CAMPO, the regional transportation planning agency. “There’s a lot of ways people can get inventive and mitigate their personal discomfort with this project: Working four days a week instead of five, or telecommuting. Or even getting up and moving.”

The Triangle’s worst rush-hour jams are concentrated now primarily around 7 to 8 a.m. and 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., traffic engineers say, with traffic generally heavier and delays worse in the afternoon. School officials said this week they’ll do what they can to get students into their classrooms on time each morning.

The school system, Wake’s second-largest employer with 17,572 workers, doesn’t have much flexibility to change employees’ daily routines.

“The majority of our people work in schools, and I’m not sure telecommuting is an option,” David Neter, the school system’s chief business officer, told the school board Tuesday.

The Beltline repair project will affect thousands of students and their families across the county. There are 223 bus routes, about 20 percent of the county’s buses, that travel either on the parts of the Beltline that will be rebuilt or on other roads that will get more traffic as motorists look for alternate routes.

“The impact extends far beyond the construction zone,” Neter said.

Where traffic spreads

Traffic forecasters at the N.C. State University Institute for Transportation Research and Education used a regional transportation computer model to predict how Beltline traffic will spread onto other roads that also serve as school bus routes.

For instance, the Beltline backups are expected to push as many as 1,000 cars an hour onto N.C. 55 between I-40 and U.S. 64 in western Wake County – already a big route for Research Triangle Park commuters. That extra traffic will affect 72 school buses on N.C. 55. It won’t be easy for those buses to avoid trouble.

“The rerouting options are limited,” Neter said. “They’re limited to main thoroughfares through all these areas outside of the actual interstate and highways. Other drivers who are commuting will be seeking the same alternatives, thus likely eliminating the benefit.”

Bastian Schroeder, a traffic engineer who directed the NCSU computer model forecast, said local employers could take advantage of the fact that the rush-hour delays usually are limited to a shorter time here than in other metropolitan areas that endure four to six hours of morning and afternoon gridlock. If more workers shift to an earlier or later work schedule, they can spread out the traffic load over a longer period.

“Most everybody who works downtown starts work at 8 a.m., so it makes perfect sense that’s when the congestion would happen,” Schroeder said. “But driving through there at 6:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., there isn’t much congestion happening.

‘The last options’

The best way commuters and their employers can soften the impact of Beltline lane closings, Schroeder said, is a combination of carpooling, public transit, telecommuting and shifting work schedules so we’re not all on the road at the same time. Don’t count on finding much relief on a back road, he said.

“Really, alternate routes are to me one of the last options,” Schroeder said. “Because those routes already have congestion as well.”

After the holidays, school administrators will start reviewing which school start and dismissal times might need to be changed, beginning with the 2014-15 school year, until the construction project is finished in late 2016.

Wake uses a three-tier bus system, with start times spread out so buses can serve multiple schools. Schools that start now about 7:30 a.m., mainly high schools and middle schools, could start even earlier. The pre-7 a.m. bus pickup times for those students could get earlier, especially for the students who now travel a long way to get to magnet schools that are inside the Beltline.

Schools that start no earlier than 8 a.m. could be moved to a later schedule. Such a change could increase early morning child-care costs for families of elementary students whose schools might start the day sometime after 9:15 a.m.

The school board is required by policy to adopt new schedules by April 1. One question will be when to implement new school times. The change could take effect in summer when the school year starts – in July for year-round schools and August for traditional-calendar schools – or sometime in winter, when the construction is expected to shift to I-40 and the worst traffic delays will begin.

“You could be embarrassed because you could spend eight months on an early time and only have the last two months of the year that it occurred,” Superintendent Jim Merrill said. “You want to be sure of the implications of that.”