Many Charlotte interstate lights have gone dark. Help’s coming but might take a while.

Motorists headlights and tail lights stream by on Interstate 77 near non-working lights. This view is from an overpass on Oaklawn Avenue near the I-77 S. exits for Brookshire Blvd.
Motorists headlights and tail lights stream by on Interstate 77 near non-working lights. This view is from an overpass on Oaklawn Avenue near the I-77 S. exits for Brookshire Blvd. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

It’s a perennial problem for Charlotte-area drivers, a situation made worse by bad weather and construction zones: Many lights on the interstates just don’t work.

In fact, there are some stretches where the majority of lights are out, N.C. Department of Transportation records show. That includes Interstate 77 from north of John Belk Freeway to south of Brookshire Boulevard.

“Brookshire and 77, you should try that sometime at night, in the rain. Oh my god,” said Bob Brandon, who tweets as @CLT_TrafficGuy for Total Traffic Network. “It’s just really horrible.”

The good news is some help is on the way. NC DOT confirmed it will spend about $51,000 to fix certain lights at interchanges this summer. For other nonworking lights, however, the wait could be longer. Much longer.

A view along the Brookshire Freeway shot from an overpass on Hamilton St. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Here’s what’s happening.

Along the highways, there are two types of fixtures: 100-feet-tall high mast light clusters at interchanges and single- or double-arm lights on poles along the road between those interchanges.

Highway Lights Out_02
100-feet-tall high mast lights along along Interstate 277 near Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

The state is replacing nearly 200 high mast lights in the Charlotte area outside of active construction zones. Depending on the weather and other factors, the job should be completed by the end of July, DOT spokeswoman Jen Thompson said.

The project covers I-85 between Sam Wilson Road and Beatties Ford Road, and from Graham Street to Mallard Creek Church Road; I-77 from Arrowood Road to Interstate 277; I-277 from John Belk Freeway to U.S. 74; and Interstate 485 at the Mallard Creek Road and South Boulevard interchanges.


But what about the other lights?

About a third of all Charlotte-area lights on I-77 are in an active construction zone for the controversial addition of express lanes.

In the Davidson area, none of the 20 lights around Griffith Street at Exit 30 are working. The same is true for the 16 high mast lights around Sam Furr Road and the 17 single- or double-arm lights around Harris Boulevard, DOT records show.

It’s not uncommon to have highway lights turned off in construction zones since work crews have their own high-intensity lights and don’t want to risk cutting wires for DOT lights, Thompson said.

She didn’t know how many lights were already not working and how many were turned off because of construction.

The contractor is responsible for maintenance of lights in the work zone during construction, according to Thompson. That’s why none of the construction zone lights are included in the summer project.

Neither are any of the single- or double-arm lights outside the construction zone. About 420 of those lights are not working, or 30 percent, which is right at the state average.

Brookshire and 77, you should try that sometime at night, in the rain. Oh my god.

Bob Brandon, Total Traffic Network

But in certain stretches, that outage figure jumps significantly. On I-77, for instance, 71 percent of the single- or double-arm lights are out between south of Arrowood to south of Tyvola Road, records show.

A statewide change

Those lights, as well as the rest of the fixtures along all interstates in North Carolina, are in line to be replaced as part of a major upgrade. The project could start in late summer and last up to 1  1/2 years, Thompson said.

It’s not yet known when work would begin in the Charlotte area or how much it would cost.

And it’s unlikely short-term repairs would be made to nonworking, nonconstruction zone lights outside of interchanges. “We would be spending funds to make the repairs, then would have to tear up the area in a few months under the new contract,” Thompson said.

Motorists tail lights stream by on the Brookshire Freeway with non-working highway lights. This photograph is shot from an overpass on Hamilton St. Directions for Beatties Ford Road and Statesville can be seen on the overhead signs at right. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Statewide, DOT maintains 10,690 lights, including about 2,700 in Mecklenburg and western Cabarrus County. Most of the state’s lights have a lifespan of three years.

The new high-efficiency lights will have a lifespan of up to 10 years. DOT will be able to control when they go on and off as well as monitor outages by computer. Right now, DOT goes out about every three months to drive around local highways counting the outages, and also relies on drivers calling in complaints.

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Double-arm lights on poles along along Interstate 277 in Charlotte. Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

The 4.4-mile I-277 inner loop in Charlotte has some of the oldest lights in the system, up to 35 years old, which makes them likely to go out more frequently, Thompson said.

As for the Brookshire at 77 interchange that vexed Brandon, the traffic tweeter, and many others, Thompson said it is not on the list for upcoming repairs because it is in an active construction zone.

Back in 2009, the state spent $6.3 million to replace nearly the entire lighting section on I-277 between U.S. 74 and I-77.

“Dark Side of the Moon” album cover, Pink Floyd Miami Herald file photo

Then-Mayor Pat McCrory called the work “a good start. … Now I can put away my Pink Floyd album,” referring to the classic “Dark Side of the Moon” that he had said the freeway resembled.

Adam Bell: 704-358-5696, @abell