CONCORD Concord officials want the state to build a $9 million overpass project that would relieve traffic congestion at Interstate 85 Exit 49, one of the busiest interchanges in North Carolina.
Exit 49 is the gateway to Concord Mills mall, the state’s top tourist attraction. And Concord Mills Boulevard/Bruton Smith Boulevard create a booming corridor that includes Charlotte Motor Speedway, zMax Dragway, Great Wolf Lodge, the Concord Regional Airport, Concord Convention Center and numerous hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Soon to open is Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium.
The area around the exit generates 7,088 year-round jobs, 3,000 seasonal jobs and about 20 million visitors a year, officials say. Concord Mills Boulevard carries 42,000 vehicles a day – almost half of the volume on I-85 in the same area.
Local leaders say congestion on the roads around the interchange affects I-85 traffic. And they worry about another possible downside to the area’s success: continued traffic gridlock that could harm future growth and economic development.
In December, the Concord City Council passed resolutions endorsing a $5 million overpass at Exit 49 and a $4 million package of enhancements such as sidewalks and crosswalks. The pedestrian projects would allow access to the future Hector Henry II Greenway, which will be part of the Carolina Thread Trail and run under I-85.
On Wednesday, the Cabarrus-Rowan Metropolitan Planning Organization will review the proposals and forward them to the N.C. Department of Transportation for evaluation in the prioritization process. The goal is to get the projects listed on the 2016-22 Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Plan and to find the funding.
The official terminology for what’s being proposed is a “grade-separated left over.” It can also be called a flyover, ramp or overpass.
Officials say the overpass and other enhancements are concepts in the preliminary stage.
“This is Step One,” said Joe Wilson, transportation director for the City of Concord. “It could be years down the road, but you’ve got to have a plan. You’ve got to have a vision and do all you can do to be poised to use money when you get it.”
About a year ago, he said, officials with the city, county, business community and speedway formed an Exit 49 Steering Committee “to look at ways of creating a world-class destination and brand it.”
Although the area is already hugely popular, “they wanted to take it to the next level – one that you don’t have to drive everywhere.”
Currently, there are no sidewalks, crosswalks or public shuttle service available in the corridor. When people move from place to place – stores, restaurants, hotels and other businesses – they have to drive. And that can be daunting on the clogged roads.
‘Future Disney World’
Wilson told the committee there was no need to move forward on a greater vision for the exit until the congestion problem was solved.
Visitors coming off I-85 now have to get onto Concord Mills Boulevard and turn left into the mall. Often traffic backs up onto the interstate and also causes problems on Concord Mills and Bruton Smith boulevards.
Wilson came up with an idea that would eliminate left turns in front of oncoming traffic.
An elevated two-lane overpass would span Concord Mills Boulevard and allow northbound traffic to flow freely to the mall. Motorists would come off the interstate onto the boulevard and then take the overpass to a road that encircles the mall. At that point, they turn right or left.
“They’ll go up and over the traffic,” Wilson said. “That’s why it’s called a flyover.”
Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman Terry Crawford,who also chairs the Exit 49 Steering Committee, said the overpass and pedestrian improvements are essential steps in the long-range goal of making the area “a want-to-go-place all year round.”
“People must be able to get around,” said Crawford, general manger of Embassy Suites Charlotte/Concord Golf Resort and Spa. “We’ve got that opportunity and we’re trying to get the fix in.”
By creating the right environment for visitors, he believes the Exit 49 corridor “could be a future Disney World.”
Deborah Carter,vice president of public policy with the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the Exit 49 proposals make “so much sense” and called the pedestrian piece “a huge gap.”
“If tourists were staying in a hotel on the opposite side of I-85 they’d love a safe and enjoyable way to get to the shopping district without using a car,” she said. “Our tourists would love the option of being able to walk. It would enhance the value of that area.”
Concord Mayor Scott Padgett said two new road projects will benefit Concord and Cabarrus County: the remaining 5.7-mile leg of Interstate 485 and the widening of I-85 to eight lanes between Bruton Smith Boulevard and N.C. 73. Part of the I-85 project also includes building a “diverging diamond” interchange at two Concord intersections.
As these transportation projects near completion this year, the overpass “is the missing link,” Padgett said.
“This exit is important to the region and the state,” he said. “We estimated this area contributes $30 million in state sales tax a year, and that’s very significant. Our goal is to alleviate congestion for local citizens and also make this a more friendly and inviting area for tourists.”
And he said it’s also important to make the exit and its amenities sustainable for everybody.
“Exit 49 is a monster exit,” Padgett said. “But it needs some help for the good of the region and state.”
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