The Charlotte area is in the midst of a flurry of highway construction, with the completion of several critical projects scheduled for the end of 2014.
The local office of the N.C. Department of Transportation said this is the “busiest it has been,” with hundreds of millions of dollars of work slated for the Interstate 485, Interstate 85 and Independence Boulevard. There are also some planned long-term projects, such as possible toll lanes for Interstate 77, that could be derailed because of political and resident opposition.
“Something is going on in every major highway,” said Jen Thompson of the N.C. DOT.
The Charlotte area languished for years in terms of highway funding and attention from the main DOT office in Raleigh.
But former Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration shifted money away from smaller cities in favor of large metropolitan areas such as Charlotte.
City Council member David Howard, a Charlotte native who is chairman of the city’s transportation committee, said he’s never seen so much highway work at one time.
“It’s not even close,” Howard said. He cited the recent completion of the new I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River as essentially a Charlotte project, since it’s a vital piece of the highway connection between Charlotte and the Triad.
“That project was important to us,” he said. “It actually helps you feel that the state has begun to treat urban areas different from other areas. You have to be excited about the attention we have received from the former administration and the current administration.”
Here are the major highway projects underway, in order of expected completion date.
• I-85 widening, Cabarrus County, December 2013.
Cost: $125 million.
What it will do: The project, which began in August 2011, will widen I-85 from four to eight lanes for 7 miles from Bruton Smith Boulevard to north of N.C. 73.
The state said it considers the project to be 66 percent finished. All traffic has been shifted to the median to allow work on the outside lanes.
Future improvements: The DOT plans to keep widening I-85 to eight lanes. The next phase – from N.C. 73 to Lane Street in Kannapolis – will be 8 miles. That $102 million contract is set to be let this fall. Construction will begin in early 2014.
The state wants to continue widening I-85 from Kannapolis to the U.S. 29 interchange near China Grove, but there is no money for that project.
• I-485 widening, south Charlotte, December 2014.
Cost: $83.3 million.
New timeline: This project was originally scheduled for completion in 2016. But the DOT shifted money in its special fund for urban loops, and the project began in October. The contractor, Lane Construction, recently began grading dirt inside the median of the highway.
What it will do: When finished, the project will expand I-485 from four to six lanes between I-77 and Rea Road, a total of 9.2 miles. That stretch of highway is one of the busiest in the state, handling as many as 120,000 cars a day. The outerbelt of the highway is often stop-and-go before and after rush hour, with the highway often clogged from 3:30 to 7 p.m.
By the summer of 2014, the DOT plans to shift existing traffic onto the new lanes so it can resurface the old lanes, built in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The project will also add a flyover bridge at the interchange of Johnston Road and I-485. Motorists today driving north on Johnston Road who want to merge onto the inner loop of I-485 must wait at a traffic light to make a left turn across traffic. When the flyover is finished, they will be able to avoid all traffic lights.
The commute: N.C. DOT deputy division engineer Scott Cole, who oversees work in the Charlotte area, said he thinks the outerbelt widening project will make the afternoon drive home much faster for thousands of commuters. But he is concerned that the morning commute could be more difficult, as more cars from I-485 attempt to merge onto I-77, which is already clogged. He described the problem as a “funnel.”
“You will have more cars trying to merge, and more cars going faster,” he said.
• Interstate 485 completion, northeast Charlotte, December 2014.
Cost: $139.5 million.
New timeline: The project was also advanced when the Perdue administration shifted urban loop money to Charlotte.
What it will do: When finished, the final section of the outerbelt – from N.C. 115 to I-85 – will be eight lanes total.
The DOT said the project, which began in the summer of 2011, is about 56 percent complete. The state plans to finish work at the Mallard Creek Road and Prosperity Church Road interchanges by September and then begin paving the actual highway later this year.
In addition to building the highway, the state is also constructing a $92 million interchange for I-485 and I-85. The state said the interchange work is 58 percent complete.
• Independence Boulevard widening, Albemarle Road to Wallace Lane, October 2016.
Cost: $51 million.
This is only a 2-mile project, and part of a decadeslong plan to remake Independence Boulevard into a hybrid expressway. Eventually the DOT wants U.S. 74 to move traffic freely from uptown to I-485, but that is probably another two decades away.
This project will rebuild interchanges at Sharon Amity Road, Idlewild Road and Conference Drive. It will add a fifth lane for traffic, which can be used for an express bus lane or a “managed lane” that could be tolled.
• Interstate 77 HOT Lanes, uptown to Iredell County.
Of the projects currently underway, this 25-mile proposal is the only one that is controversial. The state wants to widen I-77 in northern Mecklenburg and southern Iredell counties, but with a toll lane.
Cost: The latest estimate is that the project would cost $550 million, with the state contributing $170 million. Tolls would pay for the rest.
What it will do: The proposal calls for two toll lanes each way from I-277 to Catawba Avenue. (One of those toll lanes would be a converted carpool lane that exists today).
A single toll lane would be built from Catawba Avenue to N.C. 150 in Mooresville.
The price of using the toll lanes would vary based on the amount of congestion. The price would be set to keep traffic in the toll lanes moving.
Despite fierce opposition, the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization voted unanimously May 22 to move forward with the project.
• The DOT also plans to build two more toll projects in the Charlotte area: the Garden Parkway in Gaston County and the Monroe Connector/Bypass. But those two projects – which would cost nearly $2 billion total – have been stymied by legal challenges from environmental groups. In addition, the Garden Parkway faces an uphill struggle for funding. Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration has said it would favor removing dedicated funding for the toll road, and making it compete for money with other projects.
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