Road Worrier

Beltline work underway

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comDecember 21, 2013 

— Only a few Johnston County commuters took advantage Monday of new express bus service to downtown Raleigh. But they learned right away that buses sometimes go faster than cars.

A three-year project to rebuild 11.5 miles of Raleigh’s southern Beltline began Monday with the first daytime closing of freeway lanes that will stay closed for months at a time. In Southeast Raleigh, drivers on Interstate 440, also known as the Outer Beltline, were shoved onto the shoulder and the outside lane for about a mile.

By week’s end, drivers were in that squeeze pattern for the full three miles from the I-40 split to the U.S. 64/264 interchange. By mid-January, the two inside lanes of both I-440 East and I-440 West will be closed for daytime travel. That will make for a longer chokepoint and a bigger slowdown for morning and afternoon traffic.

Get used to it. We’re stuck with this until late 2016, roughly a few weeks after the next gubernatorial election.

On Twitter and other hashtag media, we’re calling this the #BeltlineJam. In the uncensored privacy of our personal automobiles, we might be calling it something else.

The I-440 lane closures add to the usual morning backups for commuters crawling into Raleigh on I-40 from Johnston County. Instead of two lanes, the ramp from I-40 to I-440 now is one lane.

Sure, scattered problems always make this part of I-40 a real drag on workday mornings. But now, on top of these frequent difficulties, we can expect the continual headaches of rush-hour backups caused every day by these protracted lane closures on the Beltline.

If you were one of those harried commuters going nowhere fast in the far right lane of inbound I-40 Monday morning, you might have noticed something new: a big green bus marked “JCX JOHNSTON CTY EXPRESS” rolling past you – on your right. On the freeway shoulder.

Yes, it’s still illegal for the rest of us to drive on the shoulder. But as of Monday, bus-on-shoulder travel is a new legal option for the happy few commuters clever enough to park their cars and catch the bus.

Following on the popularity of express commuter buses that connect Raleigh with Chapel Hill, Durham, Wake Forest, Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon, Triangle Transit and CAT launched their Johnston County Express on Monday. Every 30 minutes from 6 to 8:30 a.m. a JCX bus leaves a new park-and-ride lot at Walmart on N.C. 42 in the Cleveland community and doesn’t stop until it gets to downtown Raleigh. In the afternoon, the return buses leave downtown Raleigh between 3:45 and 6:15 p.m.

Over the next three years, JCX bus drivers will stay on I-40 for the trip into Raleigh, when they can. Like the rest of us, when I-40 gets especially awful, they’ll seek a less awful path such as U.S. 70 through Garner. And unlike the rest of us, they’ll have the option to creep along the I-40 shoulder when traffic is at a near standstill, as at least one JCX driver did on Monday morning for a few miles between the Clayton bypass and Jones Sausage Road.

Work crews were busy at night this past week on both the eastbound and westbound sides of I-440, where they will rebuild the inside two lanes first. By next summer the work will move into the outside lanes of I-440, and drivers will be shifted to the rebuilt inside lanes.

Then, in late 2014, the same process will move to an eight-mile stretch of I-40 across South Raleigh, to be completed in late 2016. Find more information at the state Department of Transportation project site: ncdot.gov/fortifync/.

By the way, the Johnston County Express is fare-free through January. After Feb. 3, the regular fares and pass fees apply: $5 for a round-trip, $85 for a 31-day pass. Download a PDF file at bit.ly/18u9ZVz for a schedule and map.

So how many Johnston County commuters left their cars Monday morning at the Walmart on N.C. 42? The six JCX buses that made the trip into Raleigh had only 17 riders. By Tuesday, that number had grown to just 19 riders.

Maybe more will ride as word spreads.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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