Winston Salem has one main East-West thoroughfare that about 70,000 drivers use every day, but starting in 2016 they will need to use an alternative route to get into downtown.

Business 40 will be shut down for two years once construction gets underway to fix problems with the road that date back when it was built in the 1950’s. Business 40 was the main route through Winston- Salem until the Interstate 40 bypass was built in 1992. Common driver complaints have addressed the sharp curves, low speed limit and narrow merge areas that come as a result of exits that are close together. The construction of the highway is expected to create 33,000 jobs and bring in around $2 million once completed.

The project aims to improve a 1.2-mile stretch of the highway between the Fourth Street bridge and the Church Street bridge that includes six interchanges. When it is complete, Business 40 will have a new set of bridges along with longer merge areas and fewer exits. Currently, cars have just 300 feet to merge between the Marshall Street and Broad Street exits. Between Cherry Street and Liberty Street cars have just 250 feet eastbound and 150 feet westbound. Federal Highway Administration standards call for at least one mile between interchanges and 2,000 feet for weave areas around exits. The project will also repair ten bridges that have been deemed structurally deficient by increasing their vertical clearance, and resurface the aging roadway.

This comes at a cost that is estimated to be between $66 million and $74 million. The North Carolina Department of Transportation will fund 20 percent of the project and the rest of the money will come from the federal government.

The final cost will be known once an option is chosen for which exits to close. Alternative Three would reduce the Broad Street interchange to a partial interchange with only an eastbound onramp, a westbound offramp and a westbound onloop. It would remove the Cherry Street and Marshall Street ramps while keeping the Liberty Street and Main Street exits open. Liberty Street would be flipped from its path under Business 40 to a bridge over the highway.

In Alternative Four the Broad Street interchange would be closed altogether and the Liberty Street ramps would be removed. There would still be a partial interchange at Main Street and a full interchange involving the Cherry Street and Marshall Street exits. In both proposals, Business 40 would be lowered in order to increase the vertical clearance of the Fourth Street bridge to 17 feet.

Once the project team selects a preferred alternative, design work will begin with construction slated to begin some time in May 2016.

Last week the Department of Transportation held two public forums in Winston- Salem where citizens voiced their opinions on the project.

Most of those who spoke at the meeting on July 24 supported Alternative Four. Elizabeth Dampier, Executive Director of the Children’s Museum of Winston-Salem, said both alternatives have pros and cons but ultimately keeping the Cherry Street and Marshall Street exits open is better for the community as a whole.

“Everyone’s going to have an impact,” she said. “There’s no business or resident that lives in the area that’s not going to have an impact. The Children’s Museum will have an impact too. So I think that what we have to do in this case is put aside our personal interests, and what might be personally best for us, and think about what’s best for the long term viability and needs of the city.”

The museum is located at 390 South Liberty Street, but Dampier said she is not worried about reduced traffic from the highway. The bigger need is to find a way to unite the downtown business community.

“With us being at the corner of Liberty and Brookstown, it still gives us a really easy access,” she said.

Project engineer Michael Penney said there has been some communication with business owners so far, but they have yet to endorse one of the two options. He said prior to construction, the department will hire a communications officer for the Winston-Salem area who will work with businesses and public to keep them informed.

“I think all the business owners are concerned as to how traffic will affect them, both on a temporary basis and on a permanent basis with a change of traffic patterns.” he said. “Whenever you’re impacting a business’s ability, their patrons ability to access it is a touchy subject, and we try to assist them in providing them with information.”

Jeff Federico owns Zoom Apparel & Printing at 303 South Broad Street and said quite a large portion of his clientele is made up of travelers on Business 40.

“Every part of what we do comes from Interstate 40 (business),” he said.

Federico said the construction will create problems for trucks hauling goods to and from his store because they typically use Business 40.

“It doesn’t make much sense to me as a business owner here, just because Marshall Street runs in one direction and Cherry Street runs in one direction and there’s a side street there to get through to the back of Broad Street but I mean, this is a main avenue that goes through to downtown,” he said.

“This south side of Broad Street is more of a low-income area so I can see how they might want to limit access to that but that’s not fair to people who live down here.”

Federico is halfway through a five-year lease on his property and said relocating would not make sense for him economically or logistically.

“We’ve got 36,000 square feet here so it wouldn’t be something that I could just pick up and move,” he said.

Federico lives in Kernersville and said the impact on his business illustrates what the project will do to the greater business community.

“It would have a huge impact on our business,” he said. “I’m not sure how they would engineer the get around. I mean the development for the new baseball park is there, I mean all the parking is on that side of the street. It’s such a big artery for the south side of Winston. “I can’t see how they would reroute that traffic. I’m not even sure how I’d get to work.”

The speakers at last week’s meeting included Walter Rothschild, the president of the David Rothschild, Inc textile mill in Reidsville. Rothschild, a Winston-Salem resident, said he thinks the plan to shut down Business 40 is outrageous.

“The Department of Transportation is a bunch of state employees that are looking after their budgets more than the welfare of Winston-Salem,” he said.

Rothschild pointed to examples of road projects in Greensboro and Statesville where parallel bridges were constructed to keep the highway open while it was under construction.

“It can be done,” he said. “No other city in the country that I’ve ever heard of closed down the only thoroughfare for that. That’s why we have eminent domain. If you have to tear down some things you build bridges parallel and keep the economic life strong.”

Department of Transportation spokesman Jamille Robbins, who gave a presentation at the meeting, said the only option which would keep Business 40 open would have made the project take six years to complete, and when residents were surveyed 70 percent voted for the more efficient option.

Rothschild said despite the efficiency, he thinks it’s not worth the economic price.

“Their priorities are other than the economic interests of Winston Salem,” he said. “They’re trying to complete this project on time and on budget and it’s not in the best interest of Winston Salem.”

Jason Thiel, president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, said they have held a number of public meetings with small businesses to listen to their input. He said in studying the two options for the project, the partnership has worked with the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce in creating a task force and hiring a consultant for about $20,000, all of which was private money.

“It’s always front and center,” Thiel said.

“It’s been on our radar screen in a major way for eight, nine years.”

He said the partnership and chamber voted to support Alternative Four, although the vote was not unanimous and he understands the needs of business owners located along Liberty Street.

“There’s really an ongoing effort to make sure we get the message out to people that downtown is open for business, and for people, during the road closure,” he said.

Thiel said the partnership has also made a recommendation of changing the oneway streets that have interchanges with Business 40 to be converted into two-way streets. Eventually, the partnership and the chamber will make a presentation to the city council, which will give the DOT their recommendation for which option they would prefer.

A report prepared by the partnership and the chamber which details the impact each option will have on business downtown found that under Alternative Four, there would be a net increase of 1.7 percent in vehicle traffic in from 2011 to 2040 and a 44.2 percent increase under Alternative Three. But the report also states that under Alternative Four, there will be a 13.2 percent increase in economic activity for the same time period and an 11.9 percent decrease under Alternative Three. The numbers are based on which routes have access to key economic centers in Winston-Salem, among which are Winston-Salem State University, the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, Old Salem, Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

The Business 40 project is just one of the major road projects in Forsyth County that the state has not prioritized.

Last year, the General Assembly passed House Bill 817, which put in place a scoring system for determining which transportation projects should receive funding.

Scores are based on factors such as accessibility, cost, congestion and safety. Each project receives three scores; division needs, regional impact, and statewide mobility. The Business 40 project received a statewide mobility score of 38 out of 100, a regional impact score of 33 out of 70, and a division needs score of 26 out of 50.

This prompted concern from councilman Dan Besse when he noticed that Business 40 had been dropped from the state’s list of funded projects.

“That puts in jeopardy years of planning and public input work on a project which had been scheduled to start in 2016,” he wrote in an email to council May 31. “The city, other local governments, and business and community leaders will be working to address this problem, including the possibility of getting the project into the DOT regional funding priorities.”

Besse said under the new system, none of Forsyth County’s major highway construction projects have been prioritized, calling the formulas set in place “black boxes.”

“It made no sense to me. It made no sense to any of our local analysts,” he said. “When you see results like that, it’s clear there’s some major bugs in the system.”

Chamber of Commerce President Gayle Anderson said she also finds the model puzzling, and thinks the project ought to be funded by the NC Mobility Fund, which the General Assembly created in 2010 to fund statewide projects such as the I-85 Corridor Improvement Project.

“It should be taken out of the formula so that it doesn’t penalize other projects that need to be done,” she said. “To bump us down into the regional category is a joke because there’s not as much money to fund the road.”

Penney, the DOT engineer, told Yes!

Weekly in June that the department was working toward a 2016 construction schedule, but was not entirely sure if the project would get off the ground in time.

DOT’s spokesperson Robbins said at this point he feels confident everything in the project will happen on time, but before construction on Business 40 can happen, improvements to Peters Creek Parkway must be made and the Salem Creek Connector, which will run between the Innovation Quarter and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

“Business 40’s going to move forward,” Robbins said. “I feel certain it will.” !