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Confused by the ‘Alternate’ I-40 signs? Here’s why they are there.

Signs like these around the Raleigh Beltline direct drivers to alternative routes to eastbound Interstate 40. Drivers should heed them only if traffic has come to a halt or they are directed that way by electronic signs along the highway.
Signs like these around the Raleigh Beltline direct drivers to alternative routes to eastbound Interstate 40. Drivers should heed them only if traffic has come to a halt or they are directed that way by electronic signs along the highway. rstradling@newsobserver.com

You may notice them as you head east on Interstate 40 from downtown Raleigh, just before I-440 splits off to the left: two signs that direct drivers toward “Alternate” East I-40.

What is this alternative highway and why, if you’re already on eastbound I-40, would you want to get on it?

The signs are among several that have gone up in recent days around an 11-mile stretch of I-40 that the N.C. Department of Transportation plans to widen over the next three years. The construction work means there will be no shoulders in many places and little room to steer traffic around an accident or disabled cars and trucks.

So NCDOT and its contractors are putting a series of sensors and message boards in and around the work zone to detect problems and direct drivers on alternative routes if necessary. The permanent-looking alternative signs will remain during construction, but people should ignore them unless traffic has come to a halt or a message board directs drivers to follow them.

“We want folks to know that I-40 is still open,” NCDOT spokesman Sean Williams wrote in an email. “I know the signs on the alternative routes may give people the idea that I-40 is closed for the duration of the project, but it is not. The signs are just for guidance should the alternative routes be needed.”

Alternative routes could include U.S. 70, U.S. 70 Business and U.S. 64/264, depending on the location and severity of the traffic problems on I-40.

The $330 million project aims to better accommodate the crush of commuters who pour in and out of Wake County from neighboring Johnston County each day. In addition to adding two lanes to each side of I-40 between Raleigh and the exit at N.C. 42 in the Cleveland community, NCDOT also plans to reconfigure the interchange at N.C. 42, with a new traffic pattern and new ramps to give drivers the option of getting on or off at nearby Cleveland Road. The interchange work isn’t expected to begin until the fall of 2020, and the whole project finished sometime in 2022.

The contractor will begin by widening a 4-mile stretch from the Beltline to U.S. 70 Business in Garner. Starting Monday, workers will begin putting concrete barriers along the median, starting with the eastbound lanes and finishing on the westbound side. The new lanes will be built inside those barriers while traffic continues on the outside.

During construction, NCDOT will be more aggressive about removing disabled or abandoned cars and trucks in the work zone, aiming to have them towed within 30 minutes. The speed limit will also be reduced, to 55 mph when workers are nearby, and drivers face fines of at least $250 for exceeding the limit shown on electronic signs.

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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 19 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.


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