Cover Story: Work zone speeds

CONCORD, NC (WBTV) - Work zone worries.  A heavily traveled construction zone on an area interstate is under fire.  Why some drivers say the speed limit is just way too fast.

That work zone is on Interstate 85 near the Mecklenburg and Cabarrus County line.  A massive pile up in the work zone closed the interstate for several hours on Tuesday.

The speed limit in that area is 65 mph and some drivers are wondering why it hasn't been lowered.

North Carolina doesn't have a blanket rule that the speed limit must be reduced in a work zone.

There's no indication speed was a factor in Tuesday's massive pileup that closed the freeway down for five hours, but the question of speed is being raised now.

Cranes, heavy equipment and barrels and barrier walls.

Sure looks like a construction zone.  But what's this?  A speed limit sign that says 65?

David Holman of Kannapolis is wondering like many drivers why the speed limit hasn't been lowered.

"It concerns me for my safety as well as my friends and family that travel through there."

The North Carolina DOT is widening I-85 from Bruton Smith Boulevard to NC 73 in Concord - a distance of about seven miles.  It's being widened four lanes (two in each direction) to where it'll be eight lanes wide.

The state is adding the extra lanes in the median.

Since work began two months ago they've shifted traffic to the shoulder, the shoulder's gone now and there's a feeling of being boxed in.

David Holman's wife is afraid to drive through the area.  He says, "I worry for her of course. She doesn't like these tight situations in traffic.. just the unknowns."

He's noticed up the road on I-85 north at the Yadkin River Bridge where construction is going on the speed limit there has been lowered to 55.  And so Holman e-mailed and asked us to look into it.

We talked to Jen Thompson, spokesperson with the North Carolina DOT.

"During the day the speed limit has not changed," she said, "but regardless it is an active work zone.  So even if you don't see anything going on you're still encouraged to drive slower."

She says at night when they've closed a lane to do work the speed limit is lowered to 55.

The local DOT division office has been considering reducing it to 55 during the day but needs to get approval from state DOT officials in Raleigh.

"They have to evaluate it and make sure that it's acceptable. It's not that we can just have a couple people join together talk about it and say we're going to change all the signs tomorrow. There is a method that we have to follow," she said.

It's not the first time work zone speeds have come up in an area widening project.

Nine years ago when Interstate 77 was widened north of Charlotte, the DOT kept the speed limit at 65 until there were five major wrecks and one death.  Public pressure helped get the highway department to lower it to 55.

Whether Tuesday's accident will enact change is up in the air.

"If something happens you're already tightened up those lanes of travel," says Holman.  "If you have a flat tire or something like that you need that room and if you can cut that down by ten miles an hour you can come to a stop a lot quicker."

In times past the DOT's reasoning for not lowering the speed limit was over fears that it would cause more problems because some drivers would exceed the posted 55 mile an hour speed limit and they would be mixing with traffic traveling at much slower speeds.

Construction will be going on for the next 2 1/2 years.  It's a $125 million project.

Incidentally, if you get caught speeding in a work zone the fine is much higher, it's $250.

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