Tomorrow’s traffic jams: These Charlotte roads are about to get a lot busier

When James Ward moved to south Charlotte about six years ago, his commute to South End took about 30 minutes on Providence Road – a pretty workable daily trip for the ad agency executive.

Now, it’s more like 45 minutes, sometimes stretching to an hour. And Ward, like many others who commute every day on the city’s main thoroughfares, is warily watching construction of three major new developments on Providence, south of Interstate 485.

It’s also happening at a half-dozen other spots around Charlotte’s periphery, where developers are gearing up to build thousands of new houses, hundreds of shops and restaurants and millions of square feet of new office space.

“It doesn’t seem like anyone’s thought about the impact on commuters,” Ward said of the construction he sees up and down his route to work.

These new developments all promise walkability between homes, offices and shops, and a less car-dependent lifestyle. But they could also increase congestion – especially for commuters.

For years, developers around Interstate 485 built big, single-use projects like shopping centers, office parks and single-family subdivisions separately. These days they’re embracing a different model: Combine all those uses into one dense area that’s similar to what you’d find in a city center. That means more people will have the option to walk or bike from home to, say, the restaurant or grocery store, and they won’t need a car for every trip.

For example, if you live at the future Waverly development on Providence Road and need a gallon of milk, you’ll be able to walk a block or two to the new Whole Foods. Workers at the River District planned west of Charlotte Douglas International Airport will be able to walk or bike to work on a network of greenways and trails in the same development, rather than having to drive.

But there’s a potential problem with that logic: Not everyone who lives there will work there, and vice versa. And if you leave or come to these new developments from other parts of the city, you’ll be taking already crowded thoroughfares like Brookshire Boulevard, Rocky River Road or Providence Road.

And if your daily commute takes you past these areas? That could mean more congestion.

“The No. 1 thing I hear from people is, ‘Let me tell you, over the past few years my commute has gotten longer and longer,’ ” said Ned Curran. He’s the head of Ballantyne developer Bissell and chairman of the N.C. Department of Transportation. “It’s all over the city.”

How much heavier will the traffic get? The Waverly development, with a Whole Foods, an office building, apartments, shops and houses on Providence Road just south of I-485, is expected to generate 19,400 additional vehicle trips each day to the area. That’s similar to the amount of traffic that goes onto Independence Boulevard at the busy Elizabeth neighborhood on-ramp. And keep in mind, that’s just one of the three developments planned along that stretch of Providence.

At I-485 and Brookshire Boulevard, the Riverbend Village project is expected to bring up to 37,000 more vehicle trips a day to a site that was vacant. That’s similar to the daily number of cars that go through the congested intersection at Providence and Fairview roads.

To offset the additional traffic, the city usually requires developers to pay for road improvements around their projects. At Waverly, for instance, that includes widening and extending Ardrey Kell Road, adding traffic lights and turn lanes and putting in an internal network of streets, pedestrian pathways and sidewalks for people to get around.

But Curran – who has overseen development that led to major congestion at Ballantyne – said those requirements sometimes don’t go far enough.

“We’re asking developers to fund transportation and infrastructure improvements in close proximity to the project but failing to consider the overall transportation needs,” said Curran.

And sometimes, city leaders approve projects even if the Charlotte Department of Transportation has concerns about their impact. Here’s what CDOT wrote about the potential traffic impact of Lincoln Harris’ plan to redevelop a 194-acre defunct golf course on Providence Road: “If this site develops as proposed, it will increase congestion and delay on Providence Road, Ardrey Kell Road, and the I-485 ramps.” City Council approved it anyway, after requiring Lincoln Harris to agree to roadway improvements, such as adding more turn lanes, pedestrian facilities and intersections.

Danny Pleasant, director of CDOT, said the city regularly requires developers to make traffic improvements around new projects. But drivers who commute on routes like N.C. 16 and Providence Road, past the major new projects, might still be stuck behind the wheel longer.

“Within the authorities and powers we have, we do a pretty good job of addressing the more localized impacts,” he said. “But we’re not really addressing the longer trips.”

Ward, the Providence Road commuter, wants to see improvements made now, such as cutouts for buses to pull out of traffic when they pick up passengers on Providence, and more investment in long-term solutions such as public transit to help get people off the roads.

“We’re lagging in rail transportation,” he said. “I would definitely take a train if it were an option.”

The city’s 25-year Transportation Action Plan, approved Monday, includes enhancements for 100 main roadways around the city, such as Providence Road. They include widening roads, building new bicycle lanes and adding sidewalks. Those recommendations would cost an estimated $2.5 billion over the next 25 years. That’s almost half of the plan’s total $5.1 billion expenditures.

But there’s a $1.1 billion funding gap in the plan, which could require measures such as higher gas taxes or more fees on vehicle registration to make up. And while the Charlotte Area Transit System is considering an ambitious new plan to add rail lines to the airport, Lake Norman and Matthews at the same time, that could cost $6 billion and require new funding sources.

What can be done?

West of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, on land that’s mostly vacant and wooded, Crescent Communities and Lincoln Harris are planning 8 million square feet of office space, about 5,000 residences, 1,000 hotel rooms, shops and restaurants. The River District, approved last year, would be the biggest master-planned development in Charlotte’s history.

With the growth comes traffic: The River District is also projected to bring 120,000 additional vehicle trips a day to the area, west of I-485 and West Boulevard, when it’s fully built out in 20 to 30 years. To avoid gridlock, the project will include a network of paths and trails so people can get around within the development without cars.

What else could local leaders do, to ease the impact of new developments for commuters? Among the steps being talked about:

Accelerate plans for transit, to give people an alternative to driving. CATS is spending $1.5 million to study the best way to bring public transit to the airport and the surrounding area, and Brian Leary, head of commercial and mixed-use development for Crescent said his company is also studying the issue. The Atlantic Station development he oversaw in Atlanta featured free circulator buses – paid for by the developer – to move people around without cars, and Leary said Charlotte should be looking at more of those solutions. Other congested areas, such as SouthPark and Ballantyne, could go ahead and start their own circulator buses, he said.

Spell out required improvements, phase by phase. The Riverbend Village development at Brookshire Boulevard and I-485 – which will include headquarters for Corning Optical, 600 residences, shops, restaurants and a movie theater – is required to have specific road improvements in place before each phase of development. The first phase requires a new lane on Brookshire, dual left-turn lanes on Mount Holly-Huntersville Road and more. The next phase requires a new right turn lane on Mount Holly-Huntersville and a new lane on the road.

The same is true at the River District, where specific infrastructure – such as an expanded interchange at West Boulevard and I-485 – will be required before the developers build each phase of the project.

James Merrifield, of MPV Properties, which has proposed a development called Farmington at Rocky River Road and I-485, said a well-planned development combining multiple uses will still lead to less congestion than spacing out subdivisions, office parks and traditional shopping malls. The key is the planning, he said.

“Rather than the piecemeal development we saw in the past, where a road would get built and people would start building on the corners, this has a more comprehensive analysis,” said Merrifield, whose development will include townhouses, senior apartments, office space, a movie theater, shops and restaurants.

A ‘car-lite’ lifestyle?

Pleasant, with the Charlotte Department of Transportation, said that over the long term, walkable, mixed-use developments offer the best chance for more people to move to a “car-lite” lifestyle.

“The new development is trying to be more connected,” he said.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor at Georgia Tech who studies the best ways to “retrofit suburbia” and build more walkable developments outside of downtowns, said developments around a city’s edges can provide “drive-to walkability.” That is, even if the only way to get to them is by car, you won’t have to drive around to get from place to place within them.

“That can reduce vehicle trips more than you think,” Dunham-Jones said. Walkable, mixed-use developments tend to “capture” about 40 percent of trips, she said.

Frank Hruby, who commutes from Providence Plantation to his uptown banking job every day, is skeptical.

“I think some of that’s going to be true,” he said of the mixed-use developments ultimately reducing traffic. But “probably you’re going to have a large bulk of people who work in uptown or SouthPark....They’re going to need to get on Providence.”

Brian Leary, head of commercial and mixed-use development for Crescent, said planning now is crucial.

“If we don’t get ahead of this stuff,” he said, “we’ll be trying to fix it later.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo