Drivers endure detours in and out of downtown Raleigh

The section of Wake Forest Road that closed on Oct. 9 for sewer repairs was a designated detour for the Peace Street ramp onto northbound Capital Boulevard, which closed in July. Wake Forest Road is expected to remain closed through the end of the month.
The section of Wake Forest Road that closed on Oct. 9 for sewer repairs was a designated detour for the Peace Street ramp onto northbound Capital Boulevard, which closed in July. Wake Forest Road is expected to remain closed through the end of the month.

Getting in and out of north end of downtown Raleigh has been slowed at times over the last three years by state Department of Transportation construction work on Capital Boulevard that includes new bridges at Wade Avenue and Peace Street.

But things have been particularly challenging lately, after contractors on nearby Wake Forest Road discovered a potential sinkhole during a city-led repaving project. Wake Forest, which parallels Capital, was closed just north of downtown on Oct. 9, as contractors replace a crumbling, nearly century-old sewer line. The road isn’t expected to reopen until Oct. 30.

Meanwhile, the contractors on the Capital Boulevard project have struggled to replace a sewer line under the southbound lanes between Peace and Lane streets. The work, in a tight space under a railroad trestle, has required closing southbound Capital the last two weekends and in the overnight hours several weeknights, as the road is excavated and filled in again in time for weekday traffic.

Last Monday, workers couldn’t get the road patched up before rush hour, causing long backups as commuters were funneled onto narrower side streets. Jeremy Warren, NCDOT’s resident engineer, said groundwater had flowed into the hole, forcing workers to send for more stone to fill it in.

“We couldn’t just cover it back up,” Warren said. “We’d end up with a sinkhole.”

Southbound Capital is scheduled to be closed again overnight Thursday and over the weekend starting at 9 p.m. Friday. Warren said depending on the weather that should be enough time to finish installing 285 feet of new, larger sewer line under the southbound lanes.

Also weather-dependent is the opening sometime next week of the new ramp from Peace Street onto northbound Capital, Warren said. The ramp was closed in late July, sending people on detours that involve either Glenwood Avenue or Wake Forest Road. In fact, signs still direct drivers on eastbound Peace to Person Street and Wake Forest, up until the barriers block their way.

Contractors for the city were repaving Wake Forest Road when they noticed a hollow place underneath. When they explored further, they discovered that a sewer pipe put in the ground in 1922 had broken in places, allowing sewage to flow out and scour away the roadbed, said Ed Buchan, environmental coordinator for the city utilities department. It was only a matter of time before the road collapsed.

“We’re fortunate that we didn’t find it with a CAT bus,” Buchan said, using the old name for the city’s bus system.

The city utilities department determined that 800 feet of sewer pipes and another section of cast iron water pipe from the same era needed to be replaced, and Wake Forest Road was closed.

City officials have acknowledged the detours around the closure were poorly marked, resulting in drivers spilling into narrow, residential side streets searching for their own way around. Residents used the Mordecai neighborhood’s NextDoor site to vent about the confusion the city caused.

“The lack of signage and traffic direction has been a complete cluster fudge,” one wrote. “We need better traffic guidance not for those who live here, but rather those passing through.”

Buchan said the city initially did a poor job of communicating with residents and posting adequate signs showing drivers where to go, and has worked to fix both. He said the utilities department usually knows weeks in advance when it’s going to need to close a road for an extended time and can plan detours and warn residents in advance.

“This was a different animal in that it was not only an unexpected project, but it was in a complicated area from a traffic perspective,” Buchan said.

The detour for southbound traffic coming down Atlantic Avenue takes drivers onto Capital Boulevard. Northbound, coming up Person Street toward where it turns into Wake Forest Road, drivers are supposed to take a right on Boundary Street, follow it until it turns into Brookside Drive and rejoins Wake Forest.

Fewer lanes

Even before the closure of Wake Forest Road, some drivers were concerned about the new traffic pattern the city is creating as part of a multiyear effort to overhaul Wake Forest and Blount and Person streets through downtown.

Without changing the width of the pavement, the city has reduced the number of travel lanes on Wake Forest from four to two, with a turn lane in the center and new bike lanes on the side.

Susan deBlaquiere, who commutes into downtown from North Raleigh, said the reduction in travel lanes has created backups and confusion, as people continue to drive as if there are still four lanes there.

“The other day someone pulled out from Watkins Grill right beside me, just not realizing/caring that it’s only one lane now,” deBlaquiere wrote in an email.

“Additionally, I’ve been looking for ways around this because of safety concerns and frustrations, and have been taking Boundary to Wake Forest to avoid that section altogether,” she wrote. “I’m not alone in that, so now myself and many others are driving through residential neighborhoods, causing more congestion on those narrow streets.”

Eric Lamb, the city’s transportation planning manager, said the new traffic pattern is designed to slow traffic on Wake Forest and make the street safer for cyclists and pedestrians. But Lamb said with the center lane for left turns, two lanes can carry as much traffic as four and do it more safely.

“I know for some people that’s counterintuitive,” he said.

Lamb said much of the confusion so far has been caused by the temporary or nonexistent markings to define the new lanes. He said the permanent markings should help drivers stay in their lanes, but those markings can’t be applied until the pavement is finished, which now depends on replacing the sewer and water lines.

“I appreciate everyone’s frustration with all the closures and everything happening at once,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that happened.”

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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,