Motorists enjoy smooth ride on new interstate bridge

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 20, 2012

SALISBURY — Walter Turner carries a youngster’s wide-eyed enchantment, watching the progress behind the monumental task of spanning the Yadkin River with new bridges.
Every work day, Turner crosses the river twice on Interstate 85 between his home in High Point and his job as historian at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer.
“It’s fascinating to watch the ongoing construction knowing what the end result will be,” he says.
The latest benchmark in the $201.5 million project came earlier this month when I-85 traffic was directed onto the new northbound bridge.
“The road is so smooth, you kind of glide across,” Turner says.
He always heads north for home by getting on the interstate at the Exit 81 interchange. The interstate from there takes him down a long stretch, up a slight hill, then down again toward the new bridge.
On the bridge, Turner looks right and has a good, unobstructed view of the river stretching toward Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station.
But on his left, it’s a major construction zone, accented by tall, red cranes and swarming workers who are building the southbound bridge.
One thing he can see now heading toward the new bridge that he hadn’t before are “dozens and dozens” of cars and trucks that belong to all the workers.
But Turner says he no longer has a view of the north-south rail line that carries Norfolk-Southern freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains.
“In some ways, that’s unfortunate,” he says.
While construction continues on the separate southbound bridge, motorists heading toward Salisbury still travel on the old I-85 bridge, which is 57 years old.
The new, four-lane southbound bridge is supposed to be open by January 2013. This July, two lanes of the new northbound bridge will start carrying southbound traffic, and the old I-85 bridge will be closed for good.
In all, the construction project is realigning and widening 7 miles of I-85, from just north of Exit 81 in Rowan County to Business I-85 in Davidson County.
Along the way, the project provides for the new I-85 Yadkin River spans (four lanes each) and the major reconstruction of interchanges on the Davidson County side of the river.
“It’s really exciting,” Turner says. “It’s a major step forward. It obviously was a complex problem to resolve, and the DOT did a great job with the funding strategy.”
Turner has been making his daily commute across the Yadkin River since 1998, so for years he crossed the river on the old structure.
While the narrowness of the old bridge made some motorists uncomfortable, “I just really got used to it,” Turner says.
“I did it every day. It wasn’t a big deal.”
His big concern now with the new northbound bridge is being conscious and disciplined with his speed, because the tendency is to drive faster on the new surface, though it remains a construction zone.
Lynn Raker, a senior planner for the city of Salisbury, says she also has to remind herself on the new bridge that the speed limit is 55 mph. “I see people fly by me,” she says.
Raker has been making the commute between Davidson County and Salisbury for 16 years, crossing the river daily.
Her father, who died a year ago, was a bridge engineer and respected consultant on bridge design and construction. Raker says she thinks often of how he would be engrossed with the Yadkin River bridges’ progress and how he would have loved to talk about the project.
“I grew up really admiring bridges and their design,” Raker says. “… I have really enjoyed watching the progress of this building project. It’s a phenomenal scope.”
Raker says the new northbound span gives her the feeling of traveling on one of the longer bridges at the coast, especially hearing the lapping noise as she passes over the metal joints between the bridge’s concrete slabs.
Raker says she also feels closer to the water on the new bridge, though she’s not sure she really is. She enjoys the new view of the river.
An image from the construction site has stayed with Raker.
One morning, heading toward work between 6:30 and 7, she saw a large group of the workers in orange vests and hardhats gathered in a circle on the Spencer side of the river.
They were moving together, with their arms raised, as if in some kind of tai chi exercise. Raker has always wondered what they were doing — a morning warmup or some kind of bonding exercise?
Neither Raker or Turner have found themselves caught in many I-85 traffic snarls associated with their commute and the construction project.
When it has happened to him, Turner says, it has been after he stayed late at work for meetings.
For many years, when Turner and his wife lived in Greensboro, they followed the construction progress on a major I-85 bypass junction.
“Watching the bridge construction off and on is really much more fascinating,” Turner says. “Gosh, just the equipment they use. … I always have wished I could get closer.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@