Charlotte's outerbelt could be finished four years ahead of schedule because of a windfall from the legislature, a piece of good news for the state's beleaguered road-building program.
The local office of the N.C. Department of Transportation had been socking away money to help fund a toll road around Monroe in case the General Assembly declined to help fund the project.
But after the legislature agreed this summer to spend $24 million annually for the Monroe Connector/Bypass, the Charlotte DOT can spend its savings – $180 million – elsewhere.
The DOT is considering using the money to jump-start construction on Interstate 485 in northeast Mecklenburg or to widen Interstate 85 to four lanes each way throughout Cabarrus County.
“I want to keep the money together,” said Barry Moose, the division engineer who oversees much of the Charlotte region. “I want to do a big project.”
The last segment of I-485, from Interstate 77 and N.C. 115 to I-85, is now scheduled for construction in 2015. The loop would likely be finished in 2017 or 2018. Estimated cost: $195 million.
Moose said he could probably begin construction on that eight-lane segment in 2011 because the department has already done some engineering work. The DOT would still be short about $15 million, but Moose said his office could shuffle the budget the find the difference.
I-85 in Cabarrus is slated to be widened from Bruton Smith Boulevard to N.C. 73 starting in 2011.
Widening the rest of the freeway in Cabarrus is unfunded. Under the current schedule, construction won't start for eight or 10 years.
Moose said he could probably widen the rest of I-85 in Cabarrus to four lanes each way for $150 million.
That work could begin in 2012, he said.
A decision on how to spend the money is months away. There will likely be fierce competition throughout the Charlotte region as to which project is fast-tracked.
Concord Mayor Scott Padgett said his city would benefit from both the completion of I-485 and improving I-85. But he said the I-85 project is the most vital.
“You just get so much bang for your buck if you do I-85,” Padgett said. “It's such a lifeline for daily commuters, and for statewide commerce.”
Like highway departments throughout the nation, the N.C. DOT has been hampered by a surge in the cost of raw materials.
Road-building revenues could also be declining as gas tax revenues stagnate or decrease as people drive less because of expensive gas.
To generate more money, the state is looking toward toll roads.
The General Assembly this session funded four turnpike projects, including an extension of the I-540 loop in Wake County, the Monroe bypass and the Garden Parkway in Gastonia. While other states have long used toll roads, these projects will be N.C.'s first.
The Monroe bypass will begin southeast of Monroe and will skirt the city to the north, tying in with I-485. It will give motorists an alternative to U.S. 74, a heavily traveled highway congested with commuters and local residents going to the shopping centers that flank the road.
The Monroe bypass is scheduled to open in 2013.
Moose had been saving money for the Monroe project because he considered it critical. If the legislature hadn't funded it – it will get $24 million annually – Moose was prepared to build it himself.
The Garden Parkway – also known as the Gaston East-West Connector – will begin south of Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. It will cross the Catawba River and parallel I-85 south of Gastonia. It will turn north and tie into I-85 west of Gastonia. The first segment of the parkway is scheduled to open in 2015.
The parkway will create a new crossing of the Catawba River and a closer tie between Gaston County and Charlotte. It also improve access to Charlotte/Douglas, especially for a new Norfolk-Southern intermodal facility that's planned for the airport.
There are other candidates for the $180 million.
I-485 in south Charlotte – from South Boulevard to Johnston Road – is only two lanes each way. It handles 120,000 cars each day and is one of the state's most congested roads. It is scheduled to be widened in 2015. That will cost $60 million-$70 million.
Moose said it's possible the I-485 widening could be paired with the I-85 Cabarrus project if additional money is found.
In the meantime, the DOT wants to use the shoulders of the expressway during rush hour to increase capacity. Virginia uses shoulders on I-66 approaching Washington, D.C.
It's unlikely the shoulders could be used before the end of 2009.
Another possibility is widening I-77 in north Mecklenburg, a project that's unfunded. The problem is that the DOT has done little engineering work there. It might be difficult to start that project in two or three years.
“We have just started scratching the surface up there,” Moose said. “If they tell me it would be 2014 before we could start funding, then we'll take it off the table.”