Exit 28 at Lake Norman has become so congested this summer that nearby small businesses are losing customers and principals at four public schools worry that students on buses will be late for class.
“We have 14 days to ground zero,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Rhonda Lennon warned N.C. Department of Transportation officials at a meeting Monday about tie-ups at Interstate 77. She was referring to the two weeks until the Aug. 25 start of school.
Enormous backups are the result of the state’s project to convert Exit 28 into North Carolina’s first diverging diamond interchange built on an existing bridge. The work involves closing lanes on, and leading to, the bridge from Catawba and West Catawba avenues.
“The biggest concern is that folks are sitting in congestion for 20, 30, sometimes 40 minutes to get across the bridge, and then they see that nobody’s working on the bridge,” Cornelius Mayor Chuck Travis told highway officials at Monday’s meeting, which Travis arranged at Cornelius Town Hall.
“This is a life safety issue for our town that’s only going to get worse with school traffic and school bus traffic,” Travis said.
Louis Mitchell, state DOT division engineer for the Charlotte area, promised Monday to meet with officials from general contractor Blythe Construction of Charlotte on Tuesday to see how costly it would be to expedite the current leg of the project that’s creating the mess. That leg includes installing a pedestrian median on West Catawba and isn’t scheduled to end until early September, he said.
“The project was pretty close budget-wise to begin with,” Mitchell said.
Most of the Exit 28 work is being done during the day and is on schedule, if not a little ahead, Mitchell said. Adding more nighttime work “would double or triple the cost.” It would also include keeping the concrete plant that supplies the concrete working through the night, he said.
Regarding Travis not seeing workers on the job, Mitchell said workers were probably elsewhere as concrete on the road dried.
“Right now, the traffic is not ideal,” Mitchell said. “We do realize that, but it is one of the growing pains in converting to (the new interchange). Once we get the lanes open and traffic signals in synchronization, everybody will be pleased.”
At least 30,000 vehicles a day travel Catawba and West Catawba avenues, town officials said, and the diverging diamond will ease chronic backups and make the exit safer.
A diverging diamond intersection allows two directions of traffic to temporarily cross to the left side of the road while on the bridge. Once there, vehicles can turn left onto the I-77 ramps without stopping and without conflicting with through-traffic.
That makes such interchanges far safer than traditional interchanges and less traffic-clogged, transportation officials said.
Diverging diamonds first appeared in France in the 1970s. The first such U.S. interchange opened in Springfield, Mo., in 2009, and diverging diamonds have since spread to North Carolina and other states.
The $6.2 million Exit 28 project is among several diverging diamonds planned or under way in the Charlotte area, including Poplar Tent Road and N.C. 73 on Interstate 85 in Cabarrus County, and Interstate 485 at Mallard Creek Road in northern Mecklenburg County.
But crews with Blythe Construction have had to close lanes on Catawba and West Catawba avenues for the Exit 28 work, and that’s led to long delays.
Small businesses survived a recession, and now customers are saying they won’t patronize them again until the work is done, Bill Russell, president and CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, told the gathering. He suggested adding Sunday hours to the project.
Linda Lempp, owner of the Whimsical Wardrobe consignment store in the Shops on the Green retail center near the exit, told the Observer later that business is off 25 percent since the Exit 28 work began. Some customers told her they’ll return only when the mess has ended, she said.
“They’re saying by Christmas,” Phyllis Karavas, owner of CookHouse Restaurant in Shops on the Green, said of the state’s timetable. “By that time, how do you stay in business?”
Customers rarely come in between 5 and 6 p.m., she said, and those who do arrive later complain incessantly to her of the congestion.
“We work every day for this business,” Karavas said. “They have to do something.”
School bus concerns
At Monday’s meeting, DOT officials also agreed to check the timing of the signal farther south at Westmoreland Road and U.S. 21. Lennon said she’s been there when only four cars have been able to cross Westmoreland before the light turns red again. The intersection leads to three of the four Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools affected by the Exit 28 work.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to have buses at schools a half-hour earlier than typically required, which “gives us some buffer,” Kevin Devore, CMS routing and scheduling manager told the gathering. Encouraging more families to have their children take the bus could also help, he said.
“We are going to try to avoid Catawba (Avenue) at all costs,” he said. “Cornelius Elementary, we’re kind of stuck.”