Wake County

Bicycle ‘superhighway’ along I-40 could connect Raleigh, RTP

Cyclists pedal along the US 36 Bikeway in June 2016. The 18-mile paved trail, a commuter highway for bicyclists, runs along US 36 between Boulder and Denver, Colorado.
Cyclists pedal along the US 36 Bikeway in June 2016. The 18-mile paved trail, a commuter highway for bicyclists, runs along US 36 between Boulder and Denver, Colorado. Courtesy of Commuting Solutions

If you commute along Interstate 40 in Wake County, Commissioner Sig Hutchinson wants you to imagine yourself there now. Imagine the skin-of-your-teeth merges, the swaying 18-wheelers, the stop-and-go monotony of rush hour.

“Now imagine sitting in traffic and watching bikes fly by you,” he said, “people who’ll be home playing with their kids before you get off the interstate.”

A recent push from Hutchinson for a bikeway along the north side of I-40 in western Wake County could bring this scenario closer to reality. The Triangle Bikeway, as the concept is known, would allow cyclists to travel unimpeded for about five miles between Trenton Road in West Raleigh, near I-40’s Wade Avenue split, and Airport Boulevard in northwest Morrisville.

Hutchinson, a well-known cycling advocate in the Triangle, proposed the project at a Feb. 17 meeting of the Triangle J Council of Government’s core subcommittee, which consists of local government officials from the Cary, Durham and RTP areas.

“It’s an age-old problem we’ve been thinking about for years,” he said. “How do you connect Raleigh to RTP and Durham? Triangle J had designed some routes through Umstead, through some circuitous routes around Morrisville. Nothing was really direct. I said, ‘Why not shoot straight up I-40?’ 

Like the highway it parallels, Hutchinson’s proposal features exits onto roadways designed to allow through-cyclists to travel its entire length without once encountering an intersection. It would even have a speed limit – between 16 and 19 miles per hour.

“I want this to be a bikeway superhighway,” Hutchinson said. “I would like to start thinking about interchanges and bore through them so you don’t have to come up at a grade and stop. I just want a straight shot, so you can be going 15 to 17 miles per hour on your bike, just cruising up that road.”

Hutchinson said there’s a need for such a route in western Wake County, where thousands of people use congested roads, including I-40, to travel short distances to work every day. Many of them would like to bike, he says, but don’t have access to a safe route that would encourage them to do so.

Five miles might not seem like a lot. Wake County is home to almost 300 miles of greenways, with another 274 miles on the way. But this project would provide a critical link between existing and proposed bike route systems that would otherwise be practically isolated from one another. Future riders could potentially continue on toward Durham’s section of the American Tobacco Trail or Chapel Hill via other proposed greenways that would extend from the bikeway’s Airport Boulevard terminus northwest toward Durham County.

“For years now, there’s been a sense that it’s really hard to connect over in the area of the airport and Lake Crabtree,” said John Hodges-Copple, regional planning director for Triangle J. “You have a lot of natural features that are barriers, and you have I-40 that’s a barrier. But through the Wake greenway plan and more discussions among members, people have decided shooting straight up I-40 may make some sense.”

Making it happen

This new-found enthusiasm for an I-40 bikeway is due in part to the region’s growth and an increased interest from commuters in avoiding traffic and staying fit. It also owes much to Wake County’s January adoption of its first-ever regional bike plan, which aims to integrate municipal greenway systems as a region-wide network.

“A lot of the municipalities are doing great work but tend to be focused on their own municipal area greenways,” said Eric Staehle, senior facilities project manager for Wake County.

Notably, the I-40 route is being called a bikeway, not a greenway. Greenways are typically handled by county and municipal parks departments, which don’t have access to the kinds of federal funding or regional planning resources available for major transportation projects. The Triangle Bikeway’s envisioned use as a commuter corridor is what could qualify it for federal money through the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Hodges-Copple said he believes the project has a shot at making CAMPO’s 2045 long-range list of projects, which will be crafted this summer and fall. That, he said, would give the project an air of viability.

Kenneth Withrow, CAMPO’s senior transportation planner, is cautious discussing the project’s future. He declined to make any predictions about when the bikeway might be built and said that the initial optimism that sometimes accompanies projects tends to set them up to disappoint.

“This would be a really big item,” he said. “It has splash, it has pizzazz, and that’s why I’d be leery of giving any kind of timeline for this to work out.”

Julie Tisdale, a city and county policy analyst with the conservative, Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation, also urged caution. She said she’d want to see data showing that the investment would be worthwhile.

“We have limited transportation dollars, so we have to be smart about how we use them,” Tisdale said. “I don’t think there has been much demonstrated demand for these kinds of bike lanes in Wake County and Raleigh. Governments should be responding to demand rather than trying to push it in a certain direction. But if there’s demand, if people say they’d use this, then OK.”

The project’s cost could also vary greatly depending on whether the design follows Hutchinson’s vision and tunnels under roads near interchanges. Hutchinson said the ballpark metric used to estimate greenway costs is about $1 million per mile and that he expects this project’s cost would be “something comparable to that.” An 18-mile bikeway along a highway between Denver and Boulder, Colo., cost about $16.6 million.

But Withrow said he expected a feasibility study paid for jointly by Wake County and CAMPO should be underway in a month or two and complete by the end of this year.

The right-of-way for this project would fall outside the I-40 corridor. It would need to be obtained from two primary property-owners: Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Umstead State Park, both of which border nearly the entire stretch of I-40 the proposed bikeway would follow. That simplifies the property question, but it also raises the stakes when it comes to getting the two parties on board with the project.

Withrow said that proposals to build multi-use paths along interstate-type roadways “are not unusual.” A similar bikeway parallels a portion of I-66 in Virginia near Washington, D.C.

“It’s kind of a transportation truism that if you have a major travel corridor like I-40, that can be a corridor for something other than cars,” Hodges-Copple said. “That’s why you built them there – because there’s a large travel market to use them.”

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan