For Richard Smith, driving through the North Tarrant Express and DFW Connector construction zones is like playing a video game.
It's just that the stakes are higher.
"When I have a close call and don't wreck, it's like ending a game with the high score," said Smith, owner of 3-D Games at Grapevine Mills mall.
When Smith wants to hurry through his commute from downtown Fort Worth to the mall, which takes him through the heart of both projects, he catches himself using game theory in real life.
" Need for Speed is the same thing as far as dodging cars," said Smith, who said he's had 10 to 12 close calls in the past year. "You get quite good at timing it. But with Grand Theft Auto 4 you have to get across town fast and avoid the cops. I'm constantly looking."
Smith is blessed with familiarity that commuting almost daily gives him. Those who don't regularly drive the North Tarrant Express (13.5 miles of Northeast Loop 820 and Texas 121/183) or the DFW Connector (8.4 miles of Texas 114/121) are often confused and frequently surprised by the ever-changing landscape of the projects.
Entrance and exit ramps are closed, lanes are constantly shifting and traffic is regularly rerouted.
For instance, after years of taking a right exit to go north on Texas 121 where it splits from Texas 183, Airport Freeway drivers recently found themselves exiting left from brand new lanes. But weeks after the shift, drivers still are making last-second leaps across lanes to go north.
In the project's two miles through Haltom City, between Beach Street and Denton Highway, eastbound lanes shift left into what had been the median.
The tight S curve at the shift can turn momentary confusion into a collision, and police Lt. Steve Irvin is concerned about the limited access to emergency vehicles.
"If there's an accident in the middle, motorcycle officers can get there OK, but cars and trucks would have a problem," Irvin said.
Want to take the Haltom Road exit off eastbound 820? Sorry, it's closed for about six months. Drivers have to take Beach; but a couple of signs warn them ahead of time.
Danny Hanna of Royse City said that when his construction job takes him to the Connector, his bane is just north of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport at the Texas 121/114 split and Interstate 635 ramp.
"I've missed the 635 cutoff a couple of times, and I end up on 121 North," he said.
Tom Loris of Grapevine said he drives through the Connector several times a day and stays confused by the series of forks in westbound lanes near Texan Trail Road.
"The lanes for 114, Main Street and William D. Tate change all the time," he said. "There's no remedy that I can see until it's finished."
'No reset button'
The projects' builders -- Bluebonnet Contractors on the $2.5 billion North Tarrant Express and Northgate Constructors on the $1.02 billion DFW Connector -- try to warn motorists about changes so they won't be caught off guard.
Bluebonnet spokeswoman Lara Kohl said that since the beginning of construction in late 2010 the contractor has tried to reduce the inconvenience of more than 700 closures on the project's main lanes and more than 300 on frontage roads.
"Wherever possible, heavy construction on the project is being done outside of peak travel times in order to have the least amount of impact on this already congested corridor," she said. "We hope that helps keep drivers and our construction crews safer."
Considering an average daily traffic flow of 175,000 vehicles, it's imperative that drivers be prepared, she said.
Northgate spokeswoman Selma Stockstill said that lane routing changes aren't frequent but are necessary because of the "design-build" nature of the projects.
"This isn't a video game," she said. "People need to pay attention -- just like when you're driving in any area. This is a construction zone, and there's no reset button out on the road."
But there are surprises.
Last month, an excavator being hauled from Hurst to Dallas on Texas 114/121 was a little too tall to get under the two Texan Trail bridges in Grapevine. The damage caused detours for about a week, delayed the opening of a turnaround and prematurely closed one of the bridges that had been scheduled for demolition.
There aren't as many collisions as might be expected amid all the confusion. Hurst police Sgt. Craig Teague said major crashes in the city's 3.06 miles of North Tarrant Express went from 117 in 2010 to 94 in 2011, when the project really got going.
"I have no clue why it decreased," he said. "Part of it may be that the construction company has done a lot of posting of warning signs and tried to reduce speeds."
Most crashes are fender benders caused by lapses in attention, said Carlos Rojas, manager of Mid Cities Collision in Hurst.
"They're mainly like front-end or rear-end, because people in stop-and-go traffic end up hitting someone," he said. "We've had probably six wrecks from the Grapevine area in the last two months from people turning the wrong way, falling into a ditch or hitting someone because it's moving so slow."
Grapevine police Sgt. Robert Eberling agreed that the increase from 1,162 collisions in 2010 to 1,336 in 2011 in the DFW Connector has been mostly fender benders.
"You have to look at the majority of accidents we're responding to are slow-speed inline type of accidents," he said. "They're bumper-to-bumper rear-end collisions because someone didn't realize the traffic stopped in front of them."
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Terry Evans, 817-390-7620