When you visit the N.C. State Fair this year, try to picture Blue Ridge Road going under Hillsborough Street and the railroad tracks at the southeast corner of the fairgrounds.
This time next year, a contractor will be making preparations to begin construction on the long-discussed Blue Ridge underpass, which will undo what the state Department of Transportation calls the most complex intersection in all of North Carolina.
Where Blue Ridge meets Hillsborough it also crosses Beryl Road and the N.C. Railroad tracks that see about two dozen trains a day. It can take a while to get through the intersection on a regular day, and traffic gets really gummed up during big events at the State Fairgrounds, Carter-Finley Stadium and PNC Arena, when crowds descend on West Raleigh and people try to cross the streets on foot.
To fix it, the state plans to send Blue Ridge more than 20 feet below grade under new bridges for Hillsborough, Beryl and the railroad tracks. A new connector road in the northeast corner of the intersection, near the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine, will take drivers between Blue Ridge and Hillsborough, with new traffic lights at each end. Blue Ridge will get another new traffic light south of the tracks at Pylon Drive, which will carry traffic between Beryl and Blue Ridge.
In exchange, the complex set of signals that now handles the three roads and the railroad at once will go away.
“By separating all those movements and putting these two signals in, it’s a lot simpler operation,” said Joey Hopkins, the division engineer for NCDOT. “Traffic would work a whole lot better than it does today.”
Construction will likely be in full swing for the 2019 State Fair and could last two to three years. That will be two or three years when getting through that intersection will be even harder than it is now. Hopkins said Hillsborough and Blue Ridge would remain open during construction, but Blue Ridge will have to be re-routed onto a parallel roadway while workers dig the underpass.
“It would not be as wide as it is today, but it will be open while all this is being built,” he said.
The project has been a long time coming. A city of Raleigh study in 2001 identified the need to reduce congestion at the intersection, and by late 2010 NCDOT had looked at three basic options: the Blue Ridge underpass and two involving bridges that would carry Blue Ridge over Hillsborough and the tracks. Based on feedback from residents and institutions in the area, NCDOT concluded that the underpass would be much less intrusive visually and more accessible for pedestrians (both Blue Ridge and Hillsborough will get sidewalks).
An environmental study was done in 2012, Hopkins said. But under a new system for weighing local road projects, the underpass did not qualify for state funding until 2015. By then, it was clear the work would overlap with the planned widening of the Beltline between Wade Avenue and Interstate 40, which would involve reconfiguring the Hillsborough Street interchange. NCDOT didn’t want to have two different contractors working on big projects so close together, so it decided to combine the projects into one. It hopes to award the contract next year.
Hopkins said NCDOT will hold another meeting, probably in early 2018, to share its plans for the underpass with the public.