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I-485 lane decision could come in March

There appears to be support on Charlotte City Council to create new carpool lanes on Interstate 485, but a regional planning group still has to approve the idea, possibly in March.

North Carolina Transportation Secretary Tony Tata told the city Monday that the state could create new carpool lanes on I-485 or it could open them as free, general-purpose lanes.

But he cautioned that creating a free lane could thwart the N.C. DOT’s plans to create express toll lanes on the highway later. Creating carpool lanes would preserve that option, and Tata said it wouldn’t be too difficult to move forward with new carpool lanes.

The state finished an I-485 widening project in December that greatly improved traffic flow.

But at the peak of rush hour, the highway can still be congested, especially between the South Boulevard exit and Rea Road. As motorists sit in traffic, there is enough asphalt for an additional lane in both directions.

The state’s plan has been to open those extra lanes at the end of the decade as toll lanes.

Council member David Howard said the carpool lanes could be a good alternative. Council member Vi Lyles, who is the city’s vote on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, said in an email to the Observer that “I heard interest in an HOV lane” if there are no safety problems.

Lyles said the state plans to present its plan to the planning organization, known as CRTPO, at its meeting Wednesday night. The public would be allowed to comment.

A final vote could come in March.

At the Monday meeting before City Council, the DOT said it could cost $1 million to create the new carpool lanes, even though the asphalt is in place.

The DOT said the $1 million figure was a “high-level estimate.”

To create carpool lanes, the state would need to add new signs. It would also need to pay for some paint to identify the special lane.

On the Interstate 77 North carpool lane, the state has a number of diamonds painted on the lane.

The DOT said overhead signs for carpool lanes cost as much as $40,000 apiece. That could add up to a total of $640,000 for all of the signs, the state said.

The federal government has requirements for the type of signs needed to identify carpool lanes, but there is apparently no minimum for the number of signs needed.

The DOT’s tentative plan for extra lanes would extend from I-77 to Johnston Road. Between Johnston and Rea roads, there is room for carpool lanes, but the state would have to use some of the shoulders.

The DOT has said in the past that it plans to use part of the inside and outside shoulder to create an express toll lane at the end of the decade.

If the state extended the carpool lanes farther, past Johnston Road, it could give motorists more congestion relief. The Johnston Road exit is a chokepoint on the highway today.

The state said Monday the time savings of having a new carpool lane would be insignificant, with motorists only saving six seconds during rush hour.

But a carpool lane from I-77 to Rea Road would likely allow people with two or more passengers to make the journey at high speeds, bypassing cars that are stuck in traffic.

Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter said in a statement: “Several council members were interested in the interim HOV lane option, as am I, and were happy that NCDOT is working to flesh that option out.”

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