Falling trees at Wade and Western interchanges signal start of Beltline construction

The four-year overhaul of Interstate 440 in West Raleigh will become apparent for drivers this week as workers begin cutting trees around the Wade Avenue and Western Boulevard interchanges.

After this stretch of the Beltline opened in the 1960s, small forests grew between the looping exit and entrance ramps of the two interchanges. Widening the highway and replacing those sharp ramps with ones that move traffic more efficiently and safely will mean clearing the trees, some of which are nearly 60 years old.

Workers began clearing trees around the Wade Avenue interchange on Monday and will need three to four months to complete the entire four-mile section of highway, said NCDOT spokesman Marty Homan.

The Lane Construction Corp. won the $347 million contract to widen the Beltline from four to six lanes from Wade Avenue to Walnut Street in Cary. The project includes reconfiguring the interchanges at Wade, Western, Hillsborough Street and Jones Franklin Road, as well as replacing the bridges that carry Melbourne Road and Athens Drive over the highway.

Wooded surround the interchange of the I-440 Beltline and Western Boulevard in Raleigh Tuesday, August 6, 2019. Work begins this week with the cutting of trees around the Wade Avenue and Western Boulevard interchanges. The highway will be widened from four lanes to six. Travis Long

Lane, in turn, hired West Contracting Inc. of Marble in far western North Carolina to clear the trees. Joey Hopkins, NCDOT’s division engineer, said contractors generally arrange to sell marketable timber cut for highway projects and keep the proceeds.

“Technically, they’re not our trees. They’re the contractor’s trees,” Hopkins said. “Whatever they plan to do with the trees was included in their bid price.”

Many people will no doubt miss the wooded ambiance of the interchanges, among them Bill Gentry, who lives in northwest Raleigh and commutes on the Beltline every day to and from work on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus.

“But I’d much rather have the road,” Gentry said. “The trees are nice, but we need the new road.”

Gentry was one of dozens of people who came to a public meeting last week where representatives of Lane and the NCDOT answered questions about how the construction will unfold. The project includes building an underpass for Blue Ridge Road under Hillsborough Street, Beryl Road and N.C. Railroad tracks near the N.C. State Fairgrounds.

Blue Ridge is expected to close at Hillsborough in late 2020 and remain shut down for 18 to 24 months while the road is depressed under bridges that will carry Beryl, Hillsborough and the railroad overhead. Hillsborough will also be closed at the intersection for up to seven months while its bridge is built; that closure is expected to take place between Dec. 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, to avoid N.C. State University football games and the State Fair.

Beryl Road will no longer connect with Blue Ridge or Hillsborough Street, but there will be a long, slopping walkway between Beryl and Blue Ridge for pedestrians headed to and from the fairgrounds.

Work will take place all along the four-mile Beltline construction zone starting this fall. Under its contract with NCDOT, Lane must keep four lanes of traffic on the highway open during the day but will be able to close lanes as needed at night. Exit and entrance ramps will also be closed for days or weeks at a time as they are replaced.

The first long-term closure will take place at Melbourne Road, where the bridge over the Beltline is scheduled to come down starting in late September. Lane expects it will take a year to replace the Melbourne bridge, before the nearby Athens Drive bridge is demolished and replaced starting in late 2020.

The NCDOT is still acquiring property along the highway that it needs for the project. That expense, plus NCDOT’s planning and engineering work, are expected to bring the final cost to more than half a billion dollars.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739,