Johnston County is a pot about to boil over. The combination of regional transportation projects, industry expansions and ample room for more rooftops has the county’s western end poised to be the next significant Raleigh suburb.
Whether suburbia will be welcome or the next great nightmare will depend a lot on the interstates, highways and secondary roads crisscrossing the county.
Over the past year, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization conducted a study focused on transportation demands for Garner and all of Johnston County west of Interstate 95. Government planning departments, N.C. Department of Transportation engineers and CAMPO officials held meetings throughout the year weighing needed projects and trouble spots. CAMP revealed the study’s findings Jan. 12 during a symposium at the Clayton Center.
Two major interstate projects aim to ease some road congestion. The Interstate 540 extension, which will pass near the Wake-Johnston border, will link Garner, Clayton and western Johnston to Cary, Holly Springs and Research Triangle Park. The state also plans to widen Interstate 40 from Garner to the Cleveland community.
Even with those projects, CAMPO deputy director Alex Rickard said 30-year projections show traffic will overwhelm vital roads in Johnston.
“Even an eight- and 10-lane I-40 is red in 2040,” Rickard said, referring to the study’s color for overburdened roads. “Right now, I-40 gets clogged up in the morning when everyone is going to work. We widen it to eight and 10 lanes and now people can live farther down I-40 and still get to work. So you widen it, it gets better, and eventually it starts to choke back down.”
The study aimed to find ways to head off Johnston’s inevitable traffic jam and incorporate those plans into CAMPO’s master transportation plan for the Triangle. The study shows I-40 to be the biggest problem, with even eight lanes from Raleigh to Benson eventually becoming congested. Rickard said the most worrisome area is the I-40/N.C. 42 intersection in the Cleveland community.
“It presents some challenges,” Rickard said. “There’s a lot of development in that area; it’s very attractive for more development. As you provide more access to 540 and 40, I don’t mean to scare anybody and say, ‘If you think it’s bad now, it’s going to get worse,’ but there’s still a lot of capacity there for more development to come.”
An interesting parallel to Cleveland is Archer Lodge, which Rickard sees as something of a proving ground for everything learned from the high-growth transformations of other Triangle towns into small cities. CAMPO expects the I-540 extension to fuel residential development in Archer Lodge, but Rickard said with so little development now, it might be possible to get out in front of the growth. The best way to do that, Rickard said, is having multiple entry points for subdivisions and providing routes that keep residents from all needing to drive through downtown.
“Archer Lodge, brand new municipality, is somewhat of a blank canvas in terms of a town that’s going to grow,” Rickard said. “What we’re trying to do with this hotspot study is provide the town with best practices and the lessons that other towns have learned the hard way. It’s not about building new roads, or 540 or a project, but it’s actually more on the development-policy side of the town. Here’s what you can do to avoid putting yourself in an uncomfortable position 20 years from now.”
The results of the study are largely an inventory of what the DOT can do, but reality will depend on the priorities of state and local governments.
To illustrate this fact, the Jan. 12 symposium had a wall-sized map of the study area, and CAMPO asked attendees to spend money on projects big and small by placing stickers on ones they would fund if they called the shots. When the money ran out, participants had the option to go back to the well, but this time using alternative funding options, like gas-tax hikes, local funding or maybe even tolls.
In the end, people wanted to see more projects in Clayton, Garner and Cleveland than anywhere else, and many were willing to add more money to the transportation pot. Rickard took that as a sign the study’s projections matched up with the day-to-day headaches of local drivers – and to what people hope to see in the county three decades from now.
“For the most part, they’re dead on, so we know where the problems are,” Rickard said.
Allison Fluitt of engineering firm Kimley-Horn served as project manager on the the study and found encouragement in the funding priorities of people at the meeting. That many people elected to spend money on projects other than I-40 or some major highway suggested road planners might have many ways to solve the same problem.
“I think there’s recognition that not all of the large projects are the end-all, be-all solution,” Fluitt said. “There’s definitely a lot of interest in those bigger-dollar projects, but I’m happy to see ... an acknowledgment that some of those intersection projects may help us move the needle.”
That’s the focus of Clayton Councilman Butch Lawter, who spent his imaginary funds on the town’s proposed South Connector, naming it his top priority. While he’s thinking of Clayton streets, Lawter sees I-540 as the biggest potential influence on western Johnston County.
“It’s kind of close to a game-changer,” Lawter said. “It’s definitely going to be a game-changer for Archer Lodge. For us it’s definitely going to change things. It’ll be interesting.”