‘A long time coming’: Durham East End Connector finally opens to traffic

·4 min read

The ceremonial opening of the Durham East End Connector on Thursday had all the usual trappings, including speeches by politicians and the cutting of a big ribbon.

But underneath the smiles and back-slapping was the understanding that the highway was opening nearly three years later than expected.

Construction of the 1.25-mile freeway connecting N.C. 147 with U.S. 70 began in early 2015 and was originally supposed to be done in 2019. Planning took even longer, after a decades-old idea of a freeway across the east side of Durham was revived in the 1990s.

“When we say that this project has been a long time in the making, we mean a long time in the making,” said state Sen. Natalie Murdock, who represents Durham. “But today we have finally reached the finish line.”

The new highway makes it easier for drivers to get between Research Triangle Park and Interstate 85 without threading their way on local streets through Durham.

“This East End Connector will greatly reduce our traffic volumes in central Durham,” said Elaine O’Neal, the city’s mayor. “And it will provide a quicker connection to areas north of I-85 and make it more safe for local drivers and pedestrians in Durham.”

Building the connector displaced 22 homes and 33 businesses. But the highway project will also help local residents rather than simply impose on them, said state Rep. Zack Hawkins, who lives in Southeast Durham.

“For those who will use this route daily, this connector provides a more effective link from East and Southeast Durham to downtown and other important areas,” Hawkins said. The highway, he said, will bring an end to “using back roads and spending up to 30 minutes in traffic waiting to move from highway 70 to the Durham Freeway, as I personally experience and hear consistently from my constituents.”

NCDOT penalizes the contractor for delays

As problems arose during the course of the project, the N.C. Department of Transportation extended the deadline for opening the highway to Oct. 1, 2021. At that point, NCDOT began penalizing the contractor, Dragados USA, at a rate of $10,000 a day, said spokesman Marty Homan.

Add in other penalties for unfinished bridge rehab work and for lane closures that went on too long and NCDOT plans to withhold about $3.7 million from the company, Homan said.

Dragados, part of the Spanish construction conglomerate ACS Group, won a $142 million contract for the connector, which was really two projects in one. In addition to building 1.25 miles of new highway, Dragados also converted 2.75 miles of U.S. 70 to a freeway just south of I-85.

Project manager Jorge Andres said the company considers the project substantially completed, though planting trees and paving parts of Holloway and other side streets may take another two months. Andres said Dragados will negotiate with NCDOT to try to lower the penalties.

“For sure. We need to,” he said just before Thursday’s ceremony. “But I still don’t know exactly how I’m going to handle that, because after today we need to sit down and start talking.”

A new interstate highway in the Triangle

The ribbon-cutting ceremony took place in the southbound lanes of the new highway, in the shade of an overpass. The pavement was clean and the white and yellow lane markings still sharp. NCDOT expected to roll back the construction barrels and let the first cars through by mid-afternoon.

With the connector, the Triangle officially has a new interstate highway. Interstate 885 runs from the U.S. 70 interchange with I-85 south through Research Triangle Park to Interstate 40, where it becomes Toll N.C. 885 down to N.C. 540 in Wake County.

The opening of the Durham East End Connector means new highway and exit numbers in Durham.
The opening of the Durham East End Connector means new highway and exit numbers in Durham.

The City of Durham conceived of the East End Connector in 1959, when it first appeared on city plans. But the highway didn’t become a priority for NCDOT for another 50 years.

“It’s been a long time coming,” former mayor Nick Tennyson, by then NCDOT’s chief deputy secretary, said when the construction contract was awarded in 2015.

It would be a longer time coming than Tennyson or anyone else expected. Now retired from NCDOT, he was on hand for Thursday’s opening.

“This was a complex thing to build,” he said. “I’m sorry it took that long, but I’m confident it was built well.”

NCDOT and Dragados say most of the delay was caused by a temporary railroad bridge built to carry CSX and Norfolk Southern trains over U.S. 70 near the merge with the new freeway.

The temporary bridge, used while a new permanent one was built, was supposed to come down in 2018. But problems completing the permanent bridge meant the temporary one was needed until this winter, and the piers holding it up prevented contractors from finishing the interchange.

“Once a project starts, things inevitably come up that aren’t expected,” said Joey Hopkins, who was NCDOT’s local division engineer when construction started and is now the department’s chief operating officer.

“Some things may not go as planned. Some things take longer than planned. This is a very complex project,” Hopkins said. “I don’t want today’s focus to be on those issues or delays. I want us to celebrate.”

The Durham East End Connector, looking towards U.S. 70, photographed Tuesday, June 28, 2022. The 1.25 miles of highway connects the Durham Freeway with U.S. 70, creating a new bypass on the east side of town known as Interstate 885.
The Durham East End Connector, looking towards U.S. 70, photographed Tuesday, June 28, 2022. The 1.25 miles of highway connects the Durham Freeway with U.S. 70, creating a new bypass on the east side of town known as Interstate 885.
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