Road Worrier: State bosses slow to change workers’ commuting schedules

Eastbound traffic moves along the southern Raleigh Beltline Monday morning, December 22, 2104. Drivers will be squeezed into three narrow lanes for the next two years while an 8-mile stretch of the I-40 Beltline is rebuilt.
Eastbound traffic moves along the southern Raleigh Beltline Monday morning, December 22, 2104. Drivers will be squeezed into three narrow lanes for the next two years while an 8-mile stretch of the I-40 Beltline is rebuilt.

The state Department of Transportation started asking local employers a few years ago to shift work times and schedules for thousands of commuters, to dilute the traffic congestion expected with a $130 million repair job on Raleigh’s southern Beltline.

But with the approach in January of work that will constrict the Beltline’s busiest 8 miles until late 2016, DOT and other government employers have not done much yet to help their own workers escape the rush-hour jam.

“It’s for each agency’s managers to decide what works best,” said David Prickett, spokesman for the state Office of Human Resources. “An employee may be a very necessary person that needs to be there at a certain time and a certain location every day – even if the commute may be unpleasant.”

It is unusual for DOT to mount such a huge project that will snarl a major freeway for years without widening it. The Beltline pavement is deteriorating because of a chemical reaction eroding the roadway foundation. Crews must dig down 2 feet to replace the crumbling concrete.

Also rare is the extensive marketing campaign for the Beltline repair job, topped with a feel-good brand name that suggests a breakfast cereal: Fortify. DOT won a national award this year for its Fortify public-relations effort.

Earlier this month, Transportation Secretary Tony Tata joined Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane at a Fortify event to ask local employers for help in reducing Beltline rush-hour traffic by 30,000 cars a day. They spelled out options for letting employees dodge traffic by working from home, moving to a four-day week, or shifting schedules so they’re off the road during peak hours (6:30-8:30 a.m. and 4-6:30 p.m.).

Neal Alexander, the state human resources director, said state workers will use teleconferencing and webinars to cut back on driving. With Fortify in mind, DOT and Alexander restored a commuter benefit for Raleigh-based state workers: free (after a one-time $25 fee) monthly bus passes.

Alexander last month asked 24,000 Wake County-based state workers and managers to consider these and other ways to reduce rush-hour traffic.

But state officials are promoting these as ideas, only. They have not set targets for state agencies to help meet that 30,000-car goal.

“We’re not asking them to get X employees off the road,” Prickett said.

By most accounts, the traffic problems were not as bad as expected during the first year of the Beltline work, which started in January.

Drivers were funneled into four lanes on the 3-mile Interstate-440 stretch at the Beltline’s southeast corner. DOT statistics indicate that morning drives have been delayed by five or six minutes, on average. This work is wrapping up now, and the I-440 section is scheduled to be restored to its full six lanes by late January.

Traffic is heavier, up to 130,000 cars and trucks a day, on the 8-mile Interstate-40 section across the rest of South Raleigh.

Starting next month in the stretch near Gorman Street and Lake Wheeler Road, DOT will reinforce the outside shoulders for traffic use and then close the inside lanes to rebuild them. The process will be reversed later, pushing traffic toward the median so the outside lanes can be rebuilt.

This is a six-lane section of I-40, and DOT promises to keep 6six lanes open the whole time.

But these will be narrow lanes, 11 feet wide instead of the regular 12. Less room to maneuver means more chances for fender benders – even with work-zone speed limits reduced to 60 mph. And drivers will go for miles with no shoulders where disabled cars can take refuge, so the traffic impact of routine accidents will be amplified.

The worst Beltline congestion is expected in subsequent months when the construction work moves into an eight-lane section of I-40, which also will be reduced to six lanes. DOT engineers originally offered to keep only four lanes open, but Tata moved that up to six lanes to ease the expected congestion.

Mike Charbonneau, who oversees the Fortify marketing effort as Tata’s deputy secretary for communications, said managers at DOT and other agencies might wait a few weeks to see how awful the traffic gets – and whether their workers are able to make it to the office on time – before they give workers options to change their routines.

But Charbonneau isn’t waiting. Aiming to do his part to ease the Beltline crush, he says about 14 of his 20 Raleigh-based employees will shift their daily schedules or work occasionally from DOT offices away from downtown Raleigh.

“We’re going to try to be flexible with letting folks try some things,” Charbonneau said.

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