North Carolina DOT Nears Completion of East End Connector
A Long and Complex History: First Proposed Six Decades Ago, the East Coast Connector Comes to Fruition
More than 60 years after it was first envisioned, the East End Connector in Durham County, North Carolina, will soon become a reality. The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) project is designed to provide a direct connection between the Durham Freeway (NC 147) and Miami Boulevard (U.S. 70) – two major east-west highways – as well as improved access to Interstate 85 and Interstate 40. The project includes the building of a 1.25-mile freeway from NC 147 to U.S. 70 and converting approximately 2.75 miles of U.S. 70 (which will be part of the East End Connector) into a freeway. The Connector is expected to be completed in November 2020.
The East End Connector will alleviate congestion on the Durham Freeway through downtown Durham and will help divert traffic off local arterial streets that are often used as a connection between I-85 and I-40. The $155 million project is also expected to promote economic development in areas along the I-85 corridor toward Virginia by improving access for people and goods between Durham and counties north of the city, and major employment and retail centers such as Research Triangle Park, Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and Wake County.
Once complete, the East End Connector will be a 3.9-mile, four-lane freeway with space for a future third lane in each direction. In addition to building a new roadway, work involves building 16 bridges, rehabilitating four others and installing four culverts on U.S. 70, NC 147 and other locations in the project area.
“The estimated length of improvements to all roadways is just under 16 miles,” says NCDOT Division Five Engineer Joey Hopkins, P.E. “It is estimated that 88 acres of right of way have been purchased, and the project is expected to utilize 205 acres. Approximately 1.5 acres of wetlands and ponds and 5,890 feet of streams are affected.
“The project is projected to carry over 100,000 vehicles by 2035,” he continues. “Based on the traffic forecast, the proposed East End Connector is crucial for the efficient movement of traffic. Without the project, these local roadways will continue to have traffic growth, but with little or no viable solution to reduce delay.
“NC 147 from I-40, through the project and along U.S. 70 to I-85 is proposed to be re-signed as I-885 near the conclusion of the project, pending approval from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.”
Construction on the East End Connector began in February 2015, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held that April. Regarding the current project status, NCDOT Resident Engineer Cameron Richards, P.E. reports, “Major upcoming construction milestones include completion of the NC 147 corridor in April 2020. The substantial completion of the project with the opening of the connector is anticipated in November 2020. This is majorly governed by the completion of the NSRR and CSX railroad bridges being constructed as part of the project scope. We anticipate the completion of these bridges to occur in the spring. At that point, the temporary railroad structure that was constructed to maintain rail traffic during the construction of the new bridges can be demolished and the final alignments along U.S. 70 can be finalized for substantial completion.”
Decades of Planning Before Construction Began
The East End Connector project is the culmination of a long and complex history of proposals, studies, detailed planning, and delays due to funding issues. As Hopkins relates, “The East End Connector was first introduced in 1959 as part of the City of Durham Thoroughfare Plan. This project has been incorporated in city plans and transportation studies since the 1970’s and was established as the city’s top priority transportation project in 2000.
The history of the proposed East End Connector is directly linked to the East-West Freeway (NC 147 between I-40 and I-85). The two projects were planned simultaneously during the preparation of a 1982 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). This 1982 FEIS and subsequent Record of Decision allowed the East-West Freeway, now known as the Durham Freeway or NC 147, to be completed in 1992; however, the proposed East End Connector did not receive funding and was not constructed.
“Interest in the proposed East End Connector re-surfaced in the late 1990’s and in 1998 NCDOT initiated further study of the 1982 Final Environmental Impact Statement as it relates to the proposed East End Connector; however, funding was not allocated,” continues Hopkins. “In 2003, the proposed East End Connector project was added to the list of projects eligible for the North Carolina Highway Trust Fund program and in 2005, a new study was initiated to again re-evaluate the 1982 FEIS. This Environmental Assessment (EA) is the resulting planning document of the 2005-2008 re-evaluation and includes updating the roadway design alternatives and associated traffic impact analysis, socioeconomic analysis, natural resources, biological resources, historical and cultural resources, and right-of way/relocation impacts for the proposed project.”
Hopkins reports that four different alternatives for the project were considered. “Ultimately Alternatives 1, 3, and 4 were carried forward for further study. Alternative 2 was not, due to significant number of residential and business relocations; impacts to five gravesites and one USEPA Superfund Site and the cost of construction. A No-Build Alternative was not carried forward because it did not meet the project’s purpose and need.
“After further study the Merger Team selected Alternative 3 as the Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative (LEDPA/ Preferred Alternative),” says Hopkins. “Alternative 3 was selected because this it has the shortest total project length, the fewest residential and business relocations, minimal natural system impacts, the least amount of required right-of-way, and the lowest project cost. It should be noted that Alternative 3 is effectively the same alternative selected in the 1982 FEIS.”
Unique ‘Scissor Bridge’ Incorporated Into the Project
As Richards points out, “This project is unique in that it contains almost every aspect of a major heavy civil highway project. This includes concrete and asphalt paving; several diverse structures (16 bridges that include flyover structures, railroad structures, and four rehab bridges); 21 walls (MSE walls; soil nail wall, CIP gravity wall, sound barrier wall); culvert construction (four culverts); utility construction; and subgrade stabilization.”
The project includes a unique structure known as a “scissor bridge”, says Richards. “The scissor bridge was implemented within the design due to the tight skew of the alignment carried by connector on to NC 147 SB,” he explains.
“A traditional bridge design would have required oversized bents to be designed and would have driven up project construction costs accompanied with steel girders. The scissor bridge contains single-span concrete girders set perpendicular to the flow of traffic that and utilizes MSE walls to support the end bents. This bridge design allowed NCDOT to maintain the tight alignments that the bridge connects within the existing ROW footprint and constraints and not have to redesign or develop additional land.”
According to Richards, approximate quantities utilized on the project include 2.7 million cubic yards of earth moved, 147,972 tons of asphalt placed, 68,000 square yards of concrete pavement placed, and over 11,000 cubic yards of other miscellaneous concrete poured.
Rainy Weather, Traffic Flow Issues Have Impacted Construction
Like many such large-scale road projects, the East End Connector has been confronted with its share of challenges – maintaining traffic flow during a phased construction schedule, the need for multiple short-term detours and lane closures, and ensuring safety throughout the process, among other issues.
“The most significant challenge with the maintenance of traffic and phasing on this project revolved around the temporary railroad bridge that was constructed to maintain NSRR and CSX rail traffic while the new railroad bridges were constructed over U.S. 70,” says Richards. “The temporary bridge had to be constructed in phase one of the project with temporary bents that were constructed in conflict with later phasing and new alignments. Essentially, the new railroad bridges had to be completed and the temporary bridge demolished before later phased construction on permanent alignments could begin. When various delays began occurring associated with the temporary railroad bridge construction, it caused the schedule to push since this was directly related to the contractor’s controlling operation/critical path.
“To mitigate this, NCDOT and the contractor partnered to develop alternative detour alignments for traffic that allowed various aspects of future phasing to become available prior to the demolition of the temporary railroad bridge,” says Richards. “This required significant coordination between NCDOT’s Division staff, City of Durham staff, Dragados management, consultant design teams, and NCDOT Design and Work Zone Traffic Control Units.
“There was also a very wet 2018 calendar year,” he continues. “This was the wettest calendar year on record for this area of North Carolina and had an adverse effect on the contractor’s operations and progress.
The completed Connector will make it easier to move goods into and out of the Durham area; truck, rail and air shipment will realize an improved flow and reduced shipping times. Easier navigation through the area is expected to increase opportunities for economic development and business growth in the city and beyond. And, the Raleigh-Durham area’s average commute time (currently 24.9 minutes) is likely to be significantly minimized.
Though six decades have passed since the East End Connector was first proposed, it seems destined to have been worth the wait.