After months of studying a congested stretch of road in eastern Gaston County, a consulting firm hired by three neighboring municipalities is finalizing its list of recommendations.
Improving the slightly more than 4-mile stretch of Wilkinson Boulevard is urgent, municipal and planning officials say. With Charlotte expected to start spreading farther west in the next decade, traffic along the six-lane thoroughfare, not to mention its drab appearance, have emerged as a major issue.
“It needs to be better than what it is,” Belmont Assistant City Manager Adrian Miller said. Should the area start seeing as much growth as that of other surrounding counties like, say, York, the congestion would prove unbearable if such infrastructure is left unchanged, he added, saying, “We would have gridlock.”
Besides Belmont, the initiative involves Cramerton and McAdenville, all of which straddle the decades-old boulevard.
The main problem on the stretch is with a handful of major intersections, said Demetri Baches, an urban planner and founder of Metrocology Inc., the consulting firm studying the boulevard. He presented the study’s findings for the first time at a public meeting this month.
While traffic on the state highway has steadily declined during the past 20 years – it sees between 17,000 and 19,000 motorists each day, according to N.C. Department of Transportation traffic counts – traffic has increased along north- and southbound roads intersecting the boulevard as more motorists use Interstate 85. Park and North Main streets, for example, seesome 44,000 motorists each day.
Despite that, traffic lights at the intersections are still timed to stay green for longer periods for east- and westbound traffic, making rush hour a vexing routine. That is particularly true during heavy traffic on the interstate that divert streams of motorists to Wilkinson.
To improve traffic flow, the study recommends redesigning the intersections and replacing the current traffic lights with high-tech ones, as well as building a new interchange on I-85 and redesigning two existing ones. Other recommendations include narrowing the outside lanes by a foot or so, to about 10 feet, and building a bypass road that would run north and south of the boulevard in a figure eight.
In addition to the infrastructure improvements, another focal point is beautifying the boulevard, whose tattered concrete median and unattractive shoulders have long been an eyesore. Aesthetic improvements could include shrubbery and streetlights along the medians, which the study also recommends narrowing, and cycling lanes and more landscaping along its shoulders.
“Most people think that it needs to look better,” said Baches, who served as Belmont’s first planning director. He added that the study also proposes that local and state law enforcement officials adopt policies to better manage traffic flow.
Any such improvements would undoubtedly “have an impact on us,” McAdenville Town Administrator Crystal Certain said.
Opening in 1926 as the first four-lane highway in North Carolina, the boulevard was built around the idea of accommodating large volumes of traffic.
The move to study the boulevard started in 2012, when a Belmont committee identified a number of issues. Shortly thereafter, the city approached the two other municipalities, creating a group comprising property owners along the corridor.
Before beginning the study in August, Baches held a series of public meetings to gather input from not only business owners along the boulevard, but also residents. As part of that outreach effort, he created a Facebook page and a website, www.BuildaBetterBoulevard.com, which provides an overview of the study.
The study initially focused on aesthetic improvements, but addressing its traffic conditions emerged as a priority.
While Gaston is the slowest-growing county bordering Mecklenburg, according to a UNC Charlotte Urban Institute study released this year, north- and southbound traffic in the area is expected to increase during the next 10 years, Baches said. He cited not only expectations for Charlotte’s growth, but also an influx of traffic when the state starts widening I-85 to eight lanes in 2024.
“More and more people are traveling north and south,” Kevin Krouse, Cramteron’s planning director, said. Some 120,000 to 135,000 motorists cross an interstate bridge over the South Fork Catawba River each day, according to NCDOT.
The study by the firm will cost about $62,500; NCDOT will pay more than three-fourths. The remainder, about $12,500, will come from Belmont and Cramerton, which has agreed to cover McAdenville’s share, Miller said.
The firm is scheduled to give a final presentation next month, and any recommendations the municipalities endorse will require approval from the Gaston-Cleveland-Lincoln Metropolitan Planning Organization and NCDOT. The presentation is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Jan. 15 at Cramerton Town Hall.
Municipal officials hope to move forward with the review process as soon as possible after the presentation, Miller said.
“We’re going to have traffic, we’re going to have congestion,” he said of the anticipated growth. “We just want to make sure we’re prepared for it.”