Major Winston-Salem traffic artery needs bypass

by Amy Kingsley

On the cold night of Feb. 21, friendly women in orange shirts inside the headquarters of the Winston-Salem Urban League greeted neighbors arriving for a meeting. They took names and contact information and distributed paper nametags.

A small group of citizens took their tags and drifted from the table into the main conference hall, where more orange shirts waited in front of an array of bar graphs balanced on easels. The employees addressed the citizens by the first names they broadcast from their chests.

“Do you have any questions?” they gently interrogated.

Most of the participants didn’t. By the time the fourth public meeting to discuss the pending overhaul of Business 40 rolled around, the orange shirts and their wearers had become as familiar to these citizens as their neighbors. They had already blanketed the neighborhoods of South Marshall, Wachovia Highlands and Holly Avenue three times – during the day, at night and on Saturday – bearing surveys on clipboards.

In the case of these citizens, familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed comfort, particularly when the change those orange shirts represent threatens the neighborhoods they call home.

Which explains the bedside manner – the lowered voices, gentle manner and almost smothering concern. The patient, Winston-Salem, is due for major surgery. And the procedure will have complications.

Here’s what they had to say: The department plans to transform the downtown Business 40 corridor beginning sometime in the next four to five years. The highway that crosses the heart of Winston-Salem has been untouched for 53 years, and it needs a major upgrade.

So far there are two plans on the table: a two-year procedure that will require the complete closure of Business 40 from Church Street to Crafton Street or a six-year plan that will leave two lanes of traffic open. Contractors will replace or renovate all of the 11 bridges on that stretch of highway.

To soften the blow, the NC Department of Transportation turned a simple neighborhood meeting into a two-hour get-together with free licensed childcare and a full spaghetti dinner sponsored by the Winston-Salem Arts Council. Caterers served pasta, breadsticks, iced tea and sheet cake that participants took back to one of several folding chairs lined up in front of a projection screen.

Presenters pointed to the nine bridges that cross Business 40 and link north and south Winston-Salem. The other two bridges are built into the highway itself.

“There was an article in the paper today that said that decisions have been made,” said Anne Wilson, a consultant from PBS&J, an engineering firm in Columbia, SC. “I want to tell you that no decisions have been made.”

In fact, Wilson and her pollsters have only finished the first leg of information gathering. They organized the meeting as an information session and as an opportunity to let the citizens know what their neighbors are thinking.

They planned meetings like this in all of the neighborhoods expected to suffer the greatest impact from construction. Holly Avenue, Wachovia Highlands, South Marshall and downtown all flank the Business 40 artery. During construction, their streets will absorb diverted traffic and they’ll suffer most of the construction noise.

In the event the state has to expand the highway, their houses are the ones subject to eminent domain.

“This section of Business 40 is the oldest piece of highway in the state,” said Claude Williamson, a staff engineer for the regional Department of Transportation office. “When it was opened back in the 1950s there was not as much traffic. With the traffic it has now, this portion of Interstate 40 is substandard. Improvements are necessary and several of the eleven bridges are in need of major repair or total replacement.”

The scope of the work also includes revamping entrance and exit ramps, relocating utilities and improving drainage.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” Williamson said. “This roadway does not meet any of the interstate standards because it was brought into the system after the other interstates were completed. It was grandfathered.”

Apart from the length of the project, there are other major differences between the two- and six-year plans. If the Department of Transportation goes with the six-year plan, most of the heavy construction will happen at night, and traffic will be shunted onto one half of the freeway, which can accommodate one lane each of east- and west-bound traffic. Construction during the two-year closure would happen during the day, and traffic would be routed around the blocked highway.

So far, the residents of neighborhoods closest to Business 40 have registered an overwhelming preference for the two-year option. Survey results from South Marshall showed 80 percent in favor of closing the highway; in Wachovia Highlands, 60 percent of the residents preferred the shorter option, and 49 percent of Holly Avenue residents picked the two-year plan.

Judy Pappas and Jean Lindsey, the co-chairs of the Holly Avenue Neighborhood Association, attended the meeting. Pappas preferred the two-year option.

“If you’re going to torture me,” she said, “I’d rather you do it for two years instead of six years.”

Pappas is worried that the construction will increase traffic in her neighborhood.

“Are we going to get some improvements out of this?” she asked. “They are going to be going down our streets to get to the highway.”

Lindsey and Pappas also worried that increasing traffic in their neighborhood would bring more crime. They asked the consultants whether the city of Winston-Salem would consider increasing patrols in Holly Avenue.

At least three participants registered their concern that new bridges reflect Winston-Salem’s “City of the Arts” heritage. Another resident worried that closing all the bridges across Business 40 would effectively sever the connection between the northern and southern halves of the city.

“We recognize a need to provide a transportation system to allow you to get to work and services,” Williamson said.

The Business 40 study has just begun, and it is far from the stage in which planners and engineers will devise new north-south routes for central city dwellers. It is likely that many people traveling both north to south and on a detour of Business 40 will rely on US Highway 52.

Business 40 hosts thousands of daily users, including neighborhood residents, commuters and travelers just passing through Winston-Salem. Wilson and her team of pollsters have been reaching out to different demographics: corporations, small businesses, universities, hospitals, commuters and neighbors.

“People wanted to talk about this project,” Wilson said.

Her crew completed 12,000 door-to-door surveys. Reaching some of the other groups has been harder. To reach commuters, they plan to conduct exit ramp surveys. For downtown workers, they will erect information tables in building lobbies. There are 1,200 businesses in downtown Winston-Salem that will be directly affected.

Although other groups – particularly small business owners – might suffer during construction, it is the residents who stand to lose the most. Particularly those who live on the tiny islands of land near exit ramps that will be redesigned and expanded. Two attendees worried that their houses would be leveled to make way for highway improvements. The representatives from Department of Transportation couldn’t offer much consolation; the department doesn’t plan to start acquiring land until 2011.

Construction plans will have to take into account the new baseball stadium that’s being built alongside Business 40. And there are other considerations.

“There are a number of historic properties that hem us in,” Williamson said.

By the end of the two-hour meeting, the crowd had dwindling down to about 10 souls quibbling about road surfaces and the dynamics of weaving. Some of the presenters sat down to plates of leftover pasta.

Although it’s likely to take nearly a decade, construction on Business 40 is likely to leave a very different road than the one these neighbors are familiar with. Several ramps and one or two bridges will probably be eliminated altogether.

“You are going to get something unique, anyway,” Williamson said. “This is not an easy project.”

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