Later this month, drivers will begin to enjoy an easier ride through the dreary Interstate 40 Beltline reconstruction zone across south Raleigh.
Traffic is squeezed now into three narrow outer lanes, while workers for Granite Construction Co. rebuild the median and inner lanes.
The ride is rough on the deteriorating roadway, and the outer lane markings are hard to see. Commuters and truckers recently have noticed new miles of smooth, freshly striped pavement – but that’s just a cosmetic veneer of asphalt, to help drivers find their way through the worst of the work zone.
Granite and the state Department of Transportation are almost ready to start pushing traffic to the newly rebuilt inside – so they can move construction workers and equipment into the outer lanes and start replacing all the pavement there.
This traffic shift was supposed to begin this coming Saturday for eastbound drivers on a 2-mile stretch between Gorman Street (Exit 295) and Lake Wheeler Road (Exit 297), but DOT said Monday that rainy weather will move that start into next week.
It will take four months to push all the traffic – three lanes in each direction for 8 miles of I-40 – to the inside lanes, where the ride should be much improved.
“Traffic there will be on all new asphalt – it’s full-depth, and all the old pavement will be gone,” DOT engineer Dennis Jernigan, who oversees construction projects in Wake and neighboring counties, said Monday. “And when you’re shifted over to the (new traffic) pattern, it’s almost like a clean chalkboard with new chalk lines on it.”
Take note: The work zone reduced speed limit, 60 miles per hour, will remain in effect.
It’s been a long slog. It won’t be finished this year.
DOT and Granite started rebuilding the southern Beltline – 3.5 miles of I-440 plus the 8 miles of I-40 – in December 2013. The concrete roadbed had crumbled over the past decade, DOT says, because of an unforeseen chemical reaction that is not uncommon across the United States in highways built during the 1980s.
Engineers are no longer predicting that the project will be substantially complete by the end of 2016. Drivers will enjoy the finished, full-width lanes for only part of the way by then, with the rest to be finished in 2017.
“We’re not going to be as far along at the end of the year as we had hoped,” Jernigan said. He could not provide a target date Monday. But the official completion date – which includes a few months of finishing details that most drivers will not notice – now is listed as Sept. 9, 2017.
Cost estimates also have changed over the history of this unusual project. DOT originally promised to keep only two lanes open to traffic in each direction, and the contract was delayed until Tony Tata – who was DOT secretary from 2013 to 2015 – worked out a deal to keep three lanes open.
That change made the project more expensive, Jernigan said, but the added cost was not fully reflected in the $130 million contract award announced in 2013. DOT now pegs the final price around $180 million.
While the Beltline work has taken longer than commuters and Wake County employers expected, the traffic delays also have been much less serious than everyone feared.
Truckers and other drivers were warned to expect 30-minute backups routinely on the I-40 portion of the Beltline, which normally carries 120,000 vehicles a day. Occasional accidents do slow traffic that much or worse – often a few times a week, according to DOT travel-time data – but regular delays are more in the range of five to 10 minutes.
Traffic engineers say the delays are milder because commuters and truckers heeded DOT warnings about how bad it would be. Rush hour is less intense on the Beltline than in previous years.
“We think some of the trip reduction is due to some combination of telecommuting, carpooling and transit use,” said Bastian Schroeder, an engineer with Wilmington-based Kittelson & Associates, who helped develop DOT’s traffic plan. “And people have adjusted by just leaving home earlier and earlier in the morning.”
Only a few more commuters are taking the bus. Four temporary rush-hour express bus routes funded by DOT for this project – to serve workers who commute from Johnston County and southern Wake to Raleigh – carry a combined average 244 riders a day, according to GoTriangle, the regional transit agency.