Gaston transportation planners are trying to get a second score for a new bridge across the Catawba River, a project that was conceived after the N.C. Department of Transportation said it was no longer working on the Garden Parkway.
The parkway has been downsized into a small, cheaper project known as “Catawba Crossings,” a highway that would begin at the West Boulevard and Interstate 485 interchange in Mecklenburg. The five-mile highway would extend to the west, cross both forks of the Catawba, and then end at New Hope Road in Gaston.
But when Catawba Crossings was scored earlier this year under the state’s new Strategic Transportation Investments scoring system, it didn’t rank high enough to be funded. The STI system ranks projects on cost, congestion relief and economic development, among other factors. Its estimated to cost $300 million.
Hank Graham, a planner with the Gaston-Cleveland-Lincoln Metropolitan Planning Organization, said he’s working to get Catawba Crossings a state or federal highway designation.
If that’s successful, Graham said the project can be scored and compared with larger regional or statewide projects. He hopes that it would be eligible for more money if it’s seen as a project of regional importance.
“The project should be scored at the regional tier or the statewide tier,” Graham said. “They have the most funding sources.”
Graham said he hopes the project can be scored by 2018.
The 22-mile Garden Parkway would have followed the same route as Catawba Crossings. But it would have continued through south Gaston County before turning north, where it would have connected with Interstate 85 near Bessemer City.
While the Garden Parkway was envisioned as a toll road, Catawba Crossings would be free.
Gaston business leaders said the parkway was important to better connect Gaston with Charlotte.
But the parkway plans divided the county, with some arguing that it would be a boondoggle. The parkway scored poorly under the state’s STI rankings, and earlier this year the N.C. Department of Transportation took the unusual step of sending postcards to tens of thousands of property owners along the route. The message: We aren’t building the parkway.
The Catawba Crossings project still has critics.
William Toole, an attorney and former Belmont City Council member, said he doesn’t think the new bridge project will score better on its second attempt.
“It’s going to do worse,” he said. “They won’t get any financial help (from tolls). And it doesn’t have advantage of going to U.S. 321. It’s a purely residential traffic byway.”
Even if the new bridge and highway scores high enough to move forward, Graham said there are other challenges.
One is to coordinate the highway with the massive new development planned by Crescent Communities and Lincoln Harris in Mecklenburg, just west of I-485. The “River District” could bring as many as 4,000 homes to the area.
Transportation planners would have to find a path for Catawba Crossings inside the River District.
Another complication is Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s plans to build a fourth parallel runway, which would require relocating West Boulevard to the south. That would change the Catawba Crossings interchange with I-485.