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Road Worrier: To avoid Raleigh’s southern BeltlineJam, look to the north

This sign in western Wake County warns of construction delays on I-40 and suggests a longer truck route to Wilmington – via I-540, US 264 and I-95.
This sign in western Wake County warns of construction delays on I-40 and suggests a longer truck route to Wilmington – via I-540, US 264 and I-95. NCDOT

If you’re one of 120,000 Interstate 40 stalwarts who make the grueling trek across Raleigh’s southern Beltline every day, the state Department of Transportation wants to help you find a better way.

It’s a longer way. But when the #BeltlineJam project grinds I-40 traffic into slow gear this summer, it might get you where you’re going more quickly.

DOT is rebuilding 11.5 miles of the southern Beltline in a three-year, $130 million project. Drivers are being moved into outer lanes this month so construction crews can start demolishing the median and inner lanes.

The big delays will start by early July, when four to five lanes of traffic on the busiest parts of I-40 will be funneled into three narrow lanes each way. Traffic engineers are warning us to expect chronic jams that will make routine trips 30 minutes longer – and sometimes worse – for the next 18 months.

“Most of us always look for the shortest route, the most direct route,” said Joey Hopkins, who makes the daily slog on I-40 from his home in Johnston County to his office in Durham, where he oversees DOT operations for seven counties. “We’re trying to let people know there are alternate ways to get around the construction that’s going on in the I-40 corridor.”

So, with new signs and messages that some drivers already find baffling, DOT is suggesting two other routes for commuters and truckers who take I-40 and the southern Beltline.

For local trips, the I-440 northern Beltline is an easy option. It’s just three miles longer than the southern path.

Real-time travel comparisons for I-40 and I-440 are posted on dynamic electric message boards for drivers approaching the Beltline. Usually the longer I-440 path is two or three minutes longer – but sometimes it’s quicker. And as the southern Beltline slows down this summer, this northern route will become increasingly attractive.

The second option is aimed at long-distance truckers who take I-40 through Raleigh on the way to and from the coast. For them, DOT has erected day-glow-orange signs pointing to a puzzling detour that is many miles out of the way.

For eastbound traffic, it starts with the I-540 northern Outer Loop (“I-540 East” in DOT language), continues east on I-495 and U.S. 264 to Wilson, and turns south on I-95 to rejoin I-40 at Benson.

This route adds more than 50 miles to the drive from, say, Chapel Hill to Wilmington.

“That is significantly out of the way,” said Joe Milazzo II, who directs the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group that lobbies for transportation improvements. “My sense is that for most trucks, most of the time, that’s not going to work for them.”

Milazzo figures that I-40 truckers are more likely to join the rest of us on I-440, the northern Beltline. It certainly is a more scenic route than the dreary southern Beltline, with barbered hedges, crape myrtles pruned like poodles, and red-brick walls dripping with vines.

Hopkins says it’s hard to predict how truckers and other drivers will respond when I-40 turns into a clogged, six-lane pipe.

“We want people to know there’s alternate routes that in many cases could be a whole lot easier to drive,” Hopkins said. “You don’t have to drive through that construction zone with the Jersey barriers and the narrow lanes, with that work going on. It’s part of our goal to encourage folks to avoid that area, especially during peak times, so the delays we know we’re going to have aren’t as bad as they could be.”

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