When the state Department of Transportation unveiled its plans to widen the Beltline in West Raleigh last summer, members of the N.C. State University Club found that exit ramps would swallow most of their parking lot, part of their par-3 golf course and all eight of their tennis courts.
Across the highway, Meredith College would lose at least 13.5 acres of parking and athletic fields that are earmarked for future expansion, as well as find the western edge of its campus lined with highway bridges, berms and light poles.
Thousands of people affiliated with the club and the college let NCDOT have it, flooding the department with emails, letters and online comments imploring the road builders to spare their institution.
So NCDOT engineers went back to work and have now come out with new plans that require less real estate. The University Club, which had expected to give up at least 17 acres to the highway, now stands to lose about 12, said Anna Maria Taylor, the immediate past president of the club’s board.
“We got five acres back,” Taylor told club members last week. “That is a huge win for us.”
Meredith hasn’t calculated how many acres it got back, but new drawings show the state taking considerably less of the athletic fields and none of the parking lot.
“We’re pleased that they’ve worked to reduce the impact to us,” said Craig Barfield, Meredith’s vice president for business and finance. “The DOT folks have been good about keeping us in touch. They’ve heard us; they’ve been listening to us.”
The planned reconfiguration of the Hillsborough Street and Wade Avenue interchanges is part of a $450 million project to widen the last four-lane section of Interstate 440 to six lanes between Wade Avenue in Raleigh and Walnut Street in Cary. It will coincide with construction of an underpass to carry Blue Ridge Road under Hillsborough Street and the N.C. Railroad tracks near the State Fairgrounds. NCDOT expects construction to begin in the spring or summer of 2019 and take three years to complete.
The new drawings for the interchanges aren’t necessarily the finished product; the companies that win the contract to build the road will craft the final designs. NCDOT’s versions are a starting point for the four teams of contractors that are expected to bid on the project this summer, who will be judged in part on whether they can use even less land.
When they drew up their original plans, NCDOT engineers set out to lengthen the entrance and exit ramps and eliminate the crisscrossing of entering and exiting traffic, which slows things down and results in accidents. They also wanted to allow drivers to go between Hillsborough and Wade without having to get on the Beltline.
The new designs still achieve those goals. But NCDOT engineers use retaining walls and tighter loops to reduce the footprint, says Joey Hopkins, the division engineer in charge of the project. They also replaced a long, curving ramp from eastbound Wade Avenue onto westbound I-440 with two right turns and a traffic light.
"That by itself accounts for most of that five acres" that the club gets back, Hopkins said.
The designs NCDOT presented last summer were preliminary, Hopkns said, and it's only right that the department acted on the feedback it received.
"For both the University Club and Meredith, there are major impacts.," he said. "So we knew that we had to sit down with them and hear their concerns and see what we could do to address them as much as possible.”
The NCDOT drafted two new versions of the Hillsborough Street and Wade Avenue interchanges: One that keeps the Reedy Creek greenway trail on the western edge of the Meredith campus, and another that moves it along Faircloth Street and Wade Avenue before hooking up with the existing trail near the Beltline. The location of the trail has not been settled yet, Hopkins said.
At a public hearing on the project last August, members of the University Club told NCDOT that losing their tennis courts and parking lot to an exit ramp that would pass a few dozen yards from their pool could force the club to close.
Now club leaders no longer consider the NCDOT’s plans a threat to its survival. The new design provides a bigger buffer for the pool and spares some of the tennis courts and more of the golf course, giving the club more room to reconfigure its campus. Club members have begun sketching out plans for building new parking and tennis courts elsewhere on the property.
Club leaders credit the impassioned pleas of their members and others, including Meredith College students and alumni, with prodding the state to revise its plans.
“If you don’t believe in the public process, this shows you that it works,” Taylor said. “We feel a lot more confident now.”