As recently as the 1980s, Rolesville was a few hundred people near a lone stoplight on the two-lane road from Raleigh to Louisburg.
But the little town in northeastern Wake County boomed in the past two decades, growing from 907 residents in the 2000 census to estimates of more than 5,000 today. And it began to choke on traffic – local farmers, new subdivision dwellers, commuters from Franklin County – that clogged Main Street on workday mornings and afternoons.
“If you were going to Raleigh in the morning and you wanted a biscuit, you stopped at Bojangles – because it’s on the right side of the road,” Mayor Frank Eagles, 69, said Monday. “In the afternoon, coming back, you could stop at McDonald’s and Hardee’s on the other side. And the people traveling through here were very hesitant to stop at all.”
So the opening in July of the U.S. 401 Rolesville Bypass generated a hearty gust of relief here – mingled with initial confusion for some drivers and anxiety for some businesses along a Main Street that is suddenly more sedate.
“It’s good for the town,” said Thurston Leak, 48, who owns Fitzgerald’s Seafood Restaurant. “My customers come in, and they let me know. Ninety percent of them, they think it’s great.”
Joey Hopkins, who oversees roads in Wake and six neighboring counties as the state Department of Transportation’s Division 5 engineer, said commuters on U.S. 401 can expect to cut 10 to 15 minutes off each trip.
The Rolesville Bypass shifts U.S. 401 east of town for six miles, broadening the road to four lanes with a median and “Superstreet” intersections that are engineered to keep the through-traffic moving.
Bypass drivers can make left turns onto Louisbury, Jonesville, Rolesville and Pulleytown roads. But if you’re approaching the bypass on one of these roads, you can’t drive straight across U.S. 401 or turn left.
Approaching town from the east on Rolesville Road, which changes its name to Young Street, you have to turn right (north) onto the 401 Bypass, then make a U-turn. Then you can continue south on U.S. 401 or turn right on Young Street, and head downtown.
There are breaks in the median where you can make a left turn but not a U-turn – and places where you can make a U-turn but not a left turn. It can be confusing.
“My repeat customers say in the beginning it was challenging,” Leak said. “It’s some getting used to, but they pretty much like it.”
Rick Eddins, 62, is a local native – and that puts him in a tiny minority here. His Rolesville Furniture Store sits at the Main Street corner that had the town’s first traffic light (now there are three).
Eddins does business from some of the town’s new arrivals who suddenly have homes to fill with furniture, and he does not expect to suffer as traffic on Main Street – now U.S. 401 Business – subsides.
But he worries about fast-food eateries and gas stations that rely on steady traffic.
“Any car you take off that road in front of that business, that’s one less potential customer they have,” Eddins said. “They need a lot of sales in a day.”
Hopkins of DOT is more optimistic. When a new U.S. 64 Bypass took traffic out of downtown Knightdale a decade ago, he said, street-side retailers saw their business drop off – at first.
“But there’s been a good bounce-back over time in Knightdale,” Hopkins said. “A lot of new business has opened up there around 64 Business and Knightdale Boulevard.”
The Rolesville Bypass rolls past pretty tobacco farms, soybean fields and forests. There are plans for commercial development around some intersections.
And the little town’s growth already has hopscotched beyond the bypass.
Rolesville High School was built in 2013 about a mile east of the bypass. The town board recently approved a subdivision near the high school that will have 900 homes.
“The bypass should have been built farther east,” Eagles said. “Because Rolesville is going to grow right on past it.”