Aug 31, 2023 - News

Triangle commuters adjust driving patterns after opening of East End Connector

Illustration of a steering wheel with an exclamation point in the center with hands on either side

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It's become a daily ritual for those driving between downtown Durham and the jobs hub of Research Triangle Park.

  • As you approach the intersection of N.C. 147 and I-885, red brake lights flare and a traffic jam emerges as four lanes of traffic merge over the course of 2,000 feet.

What's happening: The so-called East End Connector, part of a nearly three-decade goal to connect U.S. 70 to the Durham Freeway, has now been open for more than a year. And since its opening, it's become one of residents' favorite places to complain about — especially about why no one in the Triangle seems to know how to merge.

By the numbers: There have so far been 102 crashes at the intersection, according to N.C. Department of Transportation data, though none were fatal.

  • Its reported crash rate per 100 million vehicles is 372, which is greater than the state's average of 234.
In its first year open, 102 crashes happened between these three limits on the East End Connection. Map: Axios

What they're saying: "What I am seeing is a lot of rear-end crashes … at pretty low speeds," Daniel Findley, an associate director with the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at N.C. State University, told Axios.

  • "To me that suggests there's congestion."

Between the lines: The rationale for the $162 million project was to stop so many drivers from using central Durham neighborhoods as a cut-through from Interstate 85 to the Durham Freeway.

  • For years, drivers sped through roads like Duke Street or Gregson Street as a way to cut down on time.

State of play: The East End Connector seems to be is alleviating that issue, according to data from the city of Durham.

  • Daily traffic on Gregson Street between downtown and 147, for example, fell 22% in the months after the connector opened.
  • Other roads saw declines too: Duke Street (-16%), South Mangum Street (-20%), North Roxboro St. (-26.4%), and South Alston Avenue (-32%).

Yes, but: Congestion on the highways remains, Findley said, as the Triangle continues to see an increase in drivers.

  • "If you're trying to pour 10 gallons of water into a five-gallon bucket, that's just not going to work," he said.
  • "If there's too much demand, then you're going to have congestion and I tend to think most growing areas — the Triangle fits in this — it's a natural outcome of population growth."

What's next: Traffic is expected to keep funneling into the East End Connector in the coming years.

  • A forecast from 2009 estimated it would have 100,000 daily trips by the year 2035.
  • In its first year, the annual average daily traffic was 75,000, according to DOT numbers.

The bottom line: Reducing congestion will likely take reducing demand — whether that's through public transit or working from home more, Findley said.

  • The Triangle has struggled to come up with a regional solution to transportation that would better connect residential hubs and job centers, like RTP.
  • A consensus is beginning to form around bus-rapid transit, after commuter rail didn't get a favorable review from a federal agency.
  • But while Raleigh and Chapel Hill are working on their own bus-rapid transit plans, Durham hasn't yet taken up the topic.

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