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Road Worrier: I-40 Beltline work zone is a rough ride, but faster than we expected

Looking east along the fortify zone of Interstate 40 in Southeast Raleigh, NC, at the Rock Quarry exit, traffic moves smoothly Thursday afternoon January 21, 2016, in both directions while work on the widening of I-40 in the median and inner lanes progresses. In the spring of 2016, traffic will be moved onto the inner lanes so construction of the outer lanes of the new six-lane interstate will progress toward its December 2016 completion.
Looking east along the fortify zone of Interstate 40 in Southeast Raleigh, NC, at the Rock Quarry exit, traffic moves smoothly Thursday afternoon January 21, 2016, in both directions while work on the widening of I-40 in the median and inner lanes progresses. In the spring of 2016, traffic will be moved onto the inner lanes so construction of the outer lanes of the new six-lane interstate will progress toward its December 2016 completion. hlynch@newsobserver.com

We’ve seen the worst, and we can handle it after all. Driving through the Interstate 40 Beltline work zone is as daunting now as it will ever get during the remainder of a three-and-a-half year project to rebuild the crumbling freeway.

It’s not half as bad as they told us it would be. And it should get better in a few months. So cheer up!

The state Department of Transportation warned drivers last year to brace for 30-minute delays on routine trips through the project to rebuild 11.5 miles of Raleigh’s southern Beltline, from U.S. 1 at Cary to the I-495 exit at Knightdale.

And indeed, there are days when a few hundred folks will get home a half-hour late for supper, simply because they got snagged behind a Beltline fender-bender. C’est la vie, Raleigh.

But that’s not the routine. Driver anecdotes and DOT’s drive-time data show that construction-related slowdowns are typically in the tolerable range of 5 to 10 minutes.

“I would say the traffic time has not been a big factor at all for me,” said Hayes Permar, 37, a sports broadcaster who travels the Beltline from Garner to North Raleigh each day.

It’s not clear why.

DOT engineers haven’t counted cars, but they think some rush-hour I-40 drivers have found other times or routes for the trip. Some commuters are taking advantage of new express bus service to Raleigh from outlying towns.

Wade Avenue appears to be carrying more rush-hour traffic lately. And the I-440 northern Beltline is busier than before, with about the same level of travel delays recorded on I-40 in South Raleigh.

Beltline-oriented businesses that rely on timely truck traffic – such as the Pepsi bottler off Jones Sausage Road and the Cargill plant on South Blount Street – and commuters had feared much worse.

“I had expected to see more delay on a routine basis than what we’re seeing,” said Joey Hopkins, who oversees DOT operations in Wake and six other counties as DOT’s Division 5 engineer. He drives I-40 through the work zone each day between his Johnston County home and his office in Durham.

“I had thought I would have to change my commuting pattern on a regular basis,” Hopkins said. “But I haven’t done that.”

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of drivers are adjusting to hard conditions on the southern Beltline.

While the busiest section normally has four to five lanes each way to handle 120,000 cars and trucks a day, the entire work zone now is limited to three lanes each way.

The lanes are realigned and narrower than normal. They are separated with stripes that can be hard to distinguish from old lane markers visible in places a few feet to the left or right.

The constricted I-40 / I-440 split and other altered interchanges require careful navigation. Ruts and potholes in the deteriorated pavement make the driving rough.

It has been pretty hairy.

Hayes Permar, commuter from Garner

“When you add in the current conditions of unclear lane markings, bumpy to pothole-laden pavement and imperfectly placed temporary traffic walls, all in a place where motorists are often realizing late they need to jump to the 40 fork from the 440 fork, it has been pretty hairy,” Permar said.

Because low concrete barriers have replaced road shoulders, drivers with disabled cars usually are miles away from an opportunity to pull out of traffic.

“There’s not a lot of room for error, so you’ve got to look ahead and provide plenty of space behind the people in front of you,” Hopkins said.

A work-zone speed limit of 60 mph is posted, and state troopers are nabbing violators. The penalty is a $250 fine, but many drivers don’t seem to notice. While DOT’s traffic computer models predicted that rush hour speeds would fall below 10 miles per hour, drivers regularly are going faster than 65 or 70 mph.

“You’re dealing with commuter traffic, so people are driving a road they’re familiar with, and they quit looking at the signs,” Hopkins said. “They drive in robot mode, and the speeds tend to creep up. Folks that don’t drive that route on a regular basis, they’re the ones that will slow down.”

Drivers are using the outer lanes this winter while construction crews rebuild the median and inner lanes. Late this spring, construction will shift to the outside, and drivers will move to the center.

Although the outer travel lanes will be demolished in a few months, DOT’s contractor stays busy patching potholes. Several miles of lanes have been smoothed over with a thin top layer of asphalt – also a temporary improvement.

The ride will be smoother after drivers are shifted in a few months to the newly rebuilt lanes near the center of I-40, Hopkins said.

DOT says most work on the $130 million project will be completed this year, with all rebuilt lanes expected to be open for traffic by the end of December. The final top pavement layer is to be finished in the spring of 2017.

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