Any frequent driver on the southeastern sector of I-485 knows that a wreck, no matter how minor, can halt traffic for miles, and hours. That’s especially true from the Mint Hill interchange to the Johnston Road interchange -- where the road’s a measly four-lanes.
“At 7:30 this morning I got on 485 at the Idlewild interchange and it took me 45 minutes to go from Matthews to Pineville,” said Ron Gulledge, a carpet manufacturer’s rep who frequently travels that section of the interstate. “It was obviously outdated and outmoded when they built it, and with Ballantyne and all the other development piled on top of it, it’s a nightmare.”
Carol Buie-Jackson, owner of Birdhouse on the Greenway at the Shops at Piper Glen, doesn’t have to leave her Matthews home until 9:30 a.m. most days. She says her morning commute is a breeze, but the afternoons are terrible.
“When I’m headed home at 6:30 it’s pretty hosed up, especially between Rae and Providence Roads,” said Buie-Jackson.
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With some southern stretches of the outerbelt near the I-77 interchange carrying upwards of 112,000 vehicles a day, it’s no wonder why many dread their morning and afternoon commutes.
North Carolina Highway Patrol statistics show that there were 1,551 wrecks on the 67.7 mile outerloop last year. Highway Patrol Troop John Burgin says many of those accidents happen between U.S. 74 and I-77 because that is where the slowdowns occur.
“Once it’s stop and go, then people get on their phones and try to multi-task and stop paying attention,” Burgin said. “There’s no reason for people to wreck on this road. It’s just a big circle.”
He said if drivers would use their turn signals when changing lanes, they could avoid sideswiping one another -- a big cause of accidents. He also said if drivers would allow the proper following distance – seven car lengths if the speed is 70 mph – then rear-end collisions would be avoided.
Often during commuting hours, drivers don’t adhere to safe following distances, and turn signals are sparse.
“Most people have a three-fourths-of-a-second reaction time before they put on brakes. Going 55 mph, by the time you react and put on brakes, you travel an extra 200 feet down the road before you can stop. And when it rains, you need to increase your following distance even more as parts of I-485 puddle, and hydroplaning will make it even harder to stop,” Burgin said.
Matthews Public Works Director C.J. O’Neill said he can see the U.S. 74/I-485 interchange from his office.
“Many mornings it’s stop and go as far as we can see. I do my best to avoid it, taking other routes whenever possible,” O’Neill said.
Relief from this congested stretch of road is a few years away -- if you are willing to pay for it.
Jen Thompson of the N.C. Department of Transportation said one express lane in each direction will be built on I-485 between the I-77 and U.S.-74 interchanges. The express lanes are toll roads where the price, or toll, varies based on the time of day and the amount of traffic using the lanes. Those lanes will be built within the existing median
The general-purpose lane between Rae Road and Providence Road will be extended. Some existing ramps will be reconfigured to add length for acceleration as traffic merges.
She also said the department is also proposing roads that will provide direct access to the express lanes from bridges. Connectors are planned for Westinghouse Boulevard and Johnston Road. There will be other locations where access to and from the express lanes will be available via pavement markings and other delineators.
Pineville Mayor Jack Edwards said there needs to be a direct connector in his town.
“It’s very bad around the N.C. 51 interchange. There’s mall traffic, hospital traffic, and the hospital wants to build a new 90,000-square-foot building. It’s a difficult situation and always has been,” Edwards said. “I don’t see the new project as helping us at all. Unless they add a connector at N.C. 51, people in Pineville aren’t going to use the express lanes because they can’t get off.”
A new interchange at Weddington Road and I-485 will be constructed at the same time which, when completed, should help traffic move a little faster.
Thompson said the I-485 express lane project could go out for bids in May 2017 and construction could start in spring 2018. The project will take at least two years to complete. The N.C. Department of Transportation will schedule some public meetings in mid-January so area residents can get additional information and ask questions. Thompson said newsletters should go out soon to residents in the project area.
How did we get here?
Several decades ago, former Mint Hill Mayor Troy Pollard was instrumental in setting the southern route of the outerbelt. He remembers the state’s justification of four lanes.
“At the time it was presented, the state said it would never need to be more than two lanes each direction because there would never be more than 18,000 cars a day traveling it. I don’t know that any of us had any real feel for what it was going to be because we had no experience with an outerbelt,” Pollard said recently.
“The road was designed for those who wanted to bypass Charlotte, not for interchange to interchange travel like it has evolved. It’s carrying many more cars than was predicted 25 years ago.”
Mint Hill manager Brian Welch said he has not heard many complaints about I-485 traffic around Mint Hill, but that may be because most of the town’s five interchanges are still residential. As you drive toward I-77, the interchanges have more commercial development.
“I know that we have received a tremendous amount of pressure from folks wanting to develop the interchanges in Mint Hill. But our land use plan calls for all but the Lawyers Road intersection to remain residential. I think the board wants to see what happens at Lawyers and I-485 before making commitments elsewhere,” said Welch.