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Getting around and about

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GARY O'BRIEN -
Thousands of tons of concrete, steel and asphalt will be used in the building of the 64-mile Outerbelt. Some parts, in the right light, almost resemble sculpture. GARY O'BRIEN/STAFF

Charlotte’s transportation system – two major interstate highways, an outer belt, a massive airline hub and a growing light rail network – is one of the city’s main selling points for local boosters.

A host of big changes are in store for the region this year, including the completion of major construction projects and uncertainty about the future of Charlotte’s hub airport. Here’s a look at the major ways of getting around, into, and out of Charlotte:

Roads

The state is closer than ever to completing Charlotte’s outer belt, I-485. Construction started on the road in 1988. But construction crews are still working to finish a 5.7-mile gap on the highway between I-77 and I-85, in north Charlotte.

The $140 million project is making progress, and is slated for completion in December 2014. And in August 2013, the state is scheduled to complete a $92 million “turbine interchange” to handle traffic moving between I-85 and I-485.

Crews are also widening I-485 in south Charlotte, a traffic chokepoint that irritates tens of thousands of motorists a day. The project will add a lane on either side of I-485 between Rea Road and I-77, bringing the total to six lanes, as well as adding a new bridge. The $83 million project is slated for completion in December 2014.

On I-85, one of the region’s major arteries, crews are finishing a $126 million project just north of Charlotte to widen the highway from four lanes to eight. The project was scheduled for completion in November 2013.

Planes

Charlotte Douglas International Airport was the eighth-busiest in the U.S. in 2012, with more than 41.2 million passengers and 731 daily flights. Most of those passengers – about three quarters – use the airport to connect from one plane to another, rather than starting or ending their flights in Charlotte.

That’s because Charlotte Douglas became US Airways’ busiest hub. The carrier is set to merge with American Airlines, which will create the world’s largest airline. Charlotte Douglas would then be the combined company’s second-busiest hub, behind Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Some government antitrust analysts have said the company could shift flights away from Charlotte following the merger. The combined carrier would control about 94 percent of Charlotte’s daily departures. But US Airways executives – who are set to lead the merged company – have said they plan to expand service from Charlotte Douglas.

There’s no hint of uncertainty in the airport’s plans. Charlotte Douglas has about $1 billion worth of expansion projects either underway or scheduled for the coming years.

In November 2014, expanded hourly decks are expected to open, adding thousands of spaces and relieving a parking crunch. A new airport entrance road is scheduled to be completed in February 2014, and an expanded roadway in front of the terminal – with more lanes to ease congestion – is set to open in phases, starting in November 2014.

The airport currently has three parallel runways and a fourth, diagonal runway. Plans call for Charlotte Douglas to build a fourth parallel runway in between two existing runways. The runway would be 12,000 feet long, the airport’s longest.

Charlotte Douglas is set to start design work on the $93 million project in 2014, with construction to begin in 2015 and finish by 2017.

Trains

Few things have been as contentious in Charlotte as the issue of whether and how to expand light rail. The city’s Lynx Blue Line carries riders from Pineville and south Charlotte to uptown and back, but other expansions – such as a commuter line to Mooresville and a streetcar in Charlotte – have run into roadblocks.

A plan to extend the Blue Line from its current last stop in uptown to UNC-Charlotte is underway. State officials broke ground on the extension this summer. The $1.1 billion project is scheduled to begin service in 2017, and will essentially double the length of the light rail.

Charlotte is currently building a 1.5-mile streetcar line from Time Warner Cable Arena to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in the Elizabeth neighborhood.

In May, the city approved a plan to extend the streetcar line for 2.5 miles from Johnson C. Smith University along Hawthorne Lane, called the CityLynx Gold Line. Charlotte City Council agreed to spend $63 million on the streetcar, but that doesn’t guarantee it will get built – the city needs to find matching federal funds. The decision followed a year of bitter infighting among city council members over whether the streetcar is necessary or a good idea.

A plan called the Red Line Regional Rail Project has been in limbo for a year. Norfolk Southern, which owns the rail lines, and regional governments are awaiting a study of whether the lines can accommodate both freight and commuter rail.

The plan’s cost is estimated at $452 million, but financing hasn’t been nailed down yet. The line would run from southern Iredell County to Charlotte.

Ely covers business for the Observer.
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