Friday’s opening of the last piece of Charlotte’s outerbelt will bring congestion relief to one of the city’s fastest-growing areas, and will shorten driving times for people throughout the region.
Twenty-seven years after the state started construction on Interstate 485, the 5.7-mile segment will connect N.C. 115 and Interstate 85 and complete the 67-mile circle around the city.
For much of northeast Charlotte, the new I-485 segment will provide a new link for east-west travelers.
Eastfield Road, a two-lane county road, for example, is often congested, trying the patience of Highland Creek residents and thousands of others. When the outerbelt opens, traffic should drop considerably, at least in the short term.
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“I have been waiting for this for a long time,” said George Kramer of Highland Creek, who often drives to south Charlotte. To get there he either takes Eastfield Road west to I-77 – at least a 10-minute drive – or he plows through congestion at Concord Mills to reach I-85.
David Bartirome, who lives in the Mallard Creek area, agreed.
“I’ve been waiting 27 years for this,” he said. “That’s when I moved here and they told me they were starting it.”
To coincide with the outerbelt’s opening, the N.C. Department of Transportation recently raised the speed limit on all of I-485 to 70 mph.
Mostly local trips
The state believes the new section will be heavily used.
It is the only leg of I-485 that was built with four lanes in each direction. The earliest sections of I-485 in south Charlotte in the early 1990s were built with only two lanes each way and were quickly overwhelmed with cars.
Much of the traffic is expected to be on local trips, with residents no longer required to take N.C. 73, Eastfield Road or W.T. Harris Boulevard.
Today, there is no fast way to go between the Concord Mills area and Northlake Mall. I-485 will change that.
Danny Pleasant of the Charlotte Department of Transportation said most of the traffic on I-485 will be locals. He said on a typical highway such as Interstate 77, only 5 percent to 8 percent of traffic are people passing through Charlotte on a longer journey.
Reuben Benson, who lives near Browne Road, said the outerbelt will make trips to Raleigh significantly faster.
“If I’m going to Raleigh today, I go down Eastfield and pick up Poplar Tent and then ride that all the way until it crosses I-85,” Benson said. “It’s not a bad drive, but you are going over these little country roads. It takes a long time.”
Pleasant said he expects some people passing through Charlotte from, say, Greenville, S.C., to Greensboro to use the highway as a bypass, rather than using I-85 through the heart of the city.
“It’s a lot shorter in the northern arc of the circle than in the southern portion,” Pleasant said about I-485.
Another expected benefit is for people in north Mecklenburg to reach the beach. The most direct way today is to take I-77 south and then Independence Boulevard to U.S. 74 in Union County.
The new I-485 segment will let those residents loop around those bottlenecks.
And the highway will likely spur more development, as prospective homebuyers realize the new highway will make it easier to reach uptown, Lake Norman and south Charlotte.
The road “can’t help but to catalyze more growth,” Pleasant said.
Pleasant said the city has been planning for the outerbelt’s opening for more than a decade.
At Prosperity Church Road, the city and state worked together to build a split diamond interchange. Traffic will exit I-485 onto a one-way service road, which is connected with roundabouts to three separate north-south streets.
Pleasant said the split diamond interchange is designed to divert exiting traffic onto multiple roads – Benfield Road, Prosperity Church Road and Prosperity Ridge Road. The city wanted to disperse the north-south traffic in three places, rather than having it concentrate on one road.
“We divided that capacity,” Pleasant said. “It’s in such a way that it can be more walkable, a more liveable mixed-use community.”
Gail Barra, who lives along Prosperity Ridge Road, said she’s worried that the Prosperity Church Road exit will bring a flood of new development nearby.
“There’s going to be an exit right through the community,” she said. “There will be lots of traffic.”
The state built a diverging diamond interchange at Mallard Creek Road.
That interchange allows two directions of traffic to temporarily cross to the left side of the road. Officials say it moves high volumes of traffic through an intersection without increasing the number of lanes and traffic signals.
The outerbelt will soon be a full circle, but the state still has plans for the highway. In south Charlotte, the state plans to build an express toll lane on I-485 from I-77 to U.S. 74. That project could be finished in 2019 or 2020. Sarah Chaney contributed.
ON THE ROAD
number of miles to travel the beltway
Cost of 1-485 final leg
Number of years from the start of the project to the completion
▪ Lake Norman to the beach.
As the crow flies, the fastest way would be I-77 south to Independence Boulevard. But that means stop-and-go traffic leaving town. The new segment of I-485 will let people bypass the center city and exit to U.S. 74 with little congestion
▪ Concord Mills to Northlake Mall
Still need to shop more? Eastfield Road is out. The I-485 outerloop will shave 10 minutes from this trip.
▪ Gastonia to Greensboro
If there is an accident on I-85 in the city limits, I-485 will let you bypass any traffic tie-up.