by Daniel Schere

DOT, railroads lack agreement on Salem Creek Connector @Daniel_Schere

When the Salem Creek Connector project is complete it will serve as a major artery between Winston- Salem’s East Ward and downtown. The road will connect Martin Luther King Jr Drive with Rams Drive while providing an additional access point to US 52. The project calls for the construction of 11 new bridges over Salem Creek and US 52 in addition to improvements on MLK.

While the work is scheduled to be finished by the summer of 2016 progress has been stalled lately due to issues with an agreement needed between the North Carolina Department of Transportation and three railroad companies.

At a town hall meeting hosted by East Ward councilman Derwin Montgomery, DOT engineer Pat Ivey gave a presentation on the progress of the Salem Creek Connector project. He said the complication stems from the fact that Norfolk Southern, CSX and Winston-Salem Southbound jointly own the section of the railroad that runs near Salem Creek “” something Ivey said is unique.

“The bottom line is all three of these entities are involved with that section of the railroad and all three of them have to approve it,” he said.

Ivey handles DOT projects in a five-county area of the state that includes Forsyth, Stokes, Davie, Davidson and Rowan counties. He said he usually only deals with Norfolk Southern and the North Carolina Railroad when a project involves a railway. For this project, one railroad bridge will be built over the connector and the other will replace the existing bridge over US 52. The contract must be agreed to in order for any further construction to move forward.

“We’re still hopeful, we’ve not received them yet but it is forthcoming,” Ivey said.

The other obstacle is a lease that the US Army has on MLK due to the presence of the National Guard Armory.

Ivey said the lease will expire soon but the army has not yet been willing to dedicate an easement for the purpose of relocating utilities. He said DOT has kept an open line of communication since the idea for the connector came about.

“We have been in close contact with all businesses and stakeholders for quite a few years,” he said. “We actually set up a stakeholder group when we started planning for this project in the mid-2000’s.”

DOT Resident Engineer Aaron Griffith said they are still in the initial stage of construction as a result of the contract delays. The next phase of the project involves the construction of the future interchange between the connector and US 52, as well as the removal of the exit ramps at the Rams Drive interchange. The connector interchange must be completed first.

“Some time later in September or early October we plan on shifting southbound traffic onto what is going to be the detour between Rams Drive and Waughtown Street and what we’re doing that for is to rebuild the southbound bridge over Salem Creek, and to rebuild the Salem Creek Connector Road,” he said. “Then once we get that done, we’re going to shift northbound traffic onto those new bridges and build the northbound bridge.”

Griffith said that portion of the construction should be done by late 2015.

Once all is complete, the southbound ramps from Rams Drive onto 52 will remain while traffic heading north on 52 will need to use the connector bridge.

Griffith said he thinks the utility relocation will begin in November. He was not certain whether additional traffic signals would be installed on MLK. At the town hall meeting many residents had complained of poor visibility and long wait times when attempting to turn onto MLK from Williamson Street.

“Their main complaints were, you’ve got the rental company that’s on the corner there as well as the concrete plant that’s down in behind it, so you’ve got a lot of truck traffic that’s coming out of there as well,” he said.

Griffith also pointed out that Williamson Street often becomes choked with football traffic headed to Bowman Gray Stadium on Saturdays and it is currently the only way out of the neighborhood. Winston-Salem State University will also sometimes use the Bowman Gray parking lots as an overflow lot where visitors can take a shuttle to other parts of campus.

“Because the traffic is having to go in and out of there and that’s their only point of access it’s congested more than it usually is,” he said.

The original estimate for the total cost of the project was $68.9 million, but Griffith said it would now be closer to $77 million.

Councilman Montgomery said originally the DOT had not kept affected residents in the loop, but when concerns began to flow in he requested more information.

“For the residents and those who are vested in that area, they feel it, and so every day they are feeling the conditions of that,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery said the DOT has agreed so far to do a traffic count on MLK in order to determine whether additional traffic signals are needed and he remains optimistic about the outcome of the project.

“Once it’s actually built, we’ll be able to see whether its intent is actually fulfilled,” he said. !