Road Worrier: NC DOT says to not worry about 3 years of Beltline misery - be happy!

“Fortify for a better state,” says a smiling Cris Mulder, DOT deputy secretary for communication, who stars in a snappy video for the highway project.
“Fortify for a better state,” says a smiling Cris Mulder, DOT deputy secretary for communication, who stars in a snappy video for the highway project. NCDOT

Good-bye, Crawleigh. Give a warm hello to Smiley!

The state Department of Transportation kicked off a three-year project Monday to clog and rebuild Raleigh’s southern Beltline. Phase One was the cheerful marketing blitz.

This is a $130 million job to dig out and replace every crumb of concrete from eight lanes and 11.5 miles of Interstate 40 and Interstate 440. It will take three years. It will not be pleasant.

So why are those DOT folks so blasted happy?

We’re talking about a grim job here. But really, somebody has to do it. A chemical reaction called ASR is crumbling the concrete. DOT engineers have been buying time with occasional toppings of fresh asphalt, but they always said this was only postponing the inevitable.

They’ll have to dig 2 feet down into the ground to get out the bad stuff. That will mean closing lanes for months at a time, squeezing as many as 100,000 cars and trucks a day into three lanes each way. And at times, the freeway will be choked down to just two lanes each way.

The southern Beltline is perhaps Raleigh’s worst traffic problem on a good day. And the good days are about to end.

The work will affect thousands of drivers who don’t even use the southern Beltline, with backups that will spill over to other roads across the city – from U.S. 70 and Tryon Road to Wade Avenue, New Bern Avenue, the northern Beltline, the 540 Outer Loop, and I-40 on both sides of Raleigh.

When it’s finished in late 2016, what will we have to show for it? Pretty much the same old Beltline with new pavement. There will be a few miles of added auxiliary lanes to connect the last on-ramp with the next off-ramp. But they won’t actually widen the freeway.

What, then, will they accomplish? According to the breathtaking hype released by DOT Monday, the southern Beltline project will “fortify” the freeway and North Carolina, too.

Last year, DOT took a less upbeat approach. In a brief flush of self-deprecating humor, the I-40/I-440 rebuild project was dubbed “Crawleigh” – since crawling is what Raleigh will be doing on a good day.

But this nickname was quickly nixed. State and local government and business leaders hated “Crawleigh.”

‘Fortify’ and Forty Jams

Tony Tata took over as transportation secretary in January, and he told DOT engineers to work harder to mitigate the project’s ill effects. He got the contractor to promise that I-40 will keep at least three lanes open each way during the daytime. That was a big improvement over the original plan to have only two lanes open.

And there are more promises to ease the pain. DOT is giving Triangle Transit and Capital Area Transit $12 million for new bus routes, with some park-and-ride lots probably in Garner and Clayton. Employers are being asked to change work schedules and even work locations for some employees.

But none of these details has been made public yet – no transit schedules, no employer announcements.

What was announced instead Monday was something entirely different. DOT unveiled a stunning new name for the Beltline project: “Fortify.” There are an accompanying website ( and assorted social media handles. And we even have an official DOT Spotify “Forty Jams Playlist” – a collection of rockin’ tunes designed to move us during those long I-40 traffic jams when our cars won’t be moving us.

The work itself began quietly Monday night, with lane closings on I-440 West (formerly known as the “Outer Beltline”) between the I-40 split (Exit 301) and Poole Road (Exit 15). Tuesday night they’ll close lanes in the other direction, on I-440 East, between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. DOT was slow even to divulge these particulars on Monday.

No daytime lane closings are expected on the I-40 section (between Exit 293 at Cary and Exit 301) until late 2014.

The “Fortify” website cheerily refers to the crumbling stretch of I-40 and I-440 as “the 11.5-mile long ‘smile’ of the Beltline.” And Cris Mulder, DOT deputy secretary for communication, stars in a snappy new rock video as the smiling face of the “Fortify” project.

We see shiny happy people – schoolkids, a hot-dog vendor – blurting their hopes for the economy and the future. We see buses and Beltline traffic zipping along in double time.

“Fortify for a better state,” Mulder declares, beaming. “We build our community together.”

It all seems intended to make us feel good about how bad it’s going to make us feel.

Wait a minute: “Hurts So Good!” Of course! Maybe they can add the John Mellencamp rocker to their stuck-in-traffic playlist.

Meanwhile, with best wishes for the next three years, I give you: Project Smiley.

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