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Relief for interstate traffic? Driving on shoulders

Charlotte commuters could be driving on the shoulders of some interstates during rush hour by the end of the decade after a state traffic engineer said he's now optimistic the congestion-relief plan will work.

The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to spend $200,000 on a consultant who will determine how to convert the shoulders into general purpose lanes that could handle traffic at high speeds. The downside for motorists is that the study will probably take six months to complete, meaning the shoulders on Interstates 485 and 77 couldn't be used until late 2009, at the earliest.

“I wish we would have the ball moving faster,” said Barry Moose, a division engineer with the N.C. DOT. “But we have moved it forward.”

Without enough road construction money to relieve congestion, the N.C. Department of Transportation began exploring in late 2007 using shoulders for two high-congestion areas: I-485 between South Boulevard and Johnston Road, and I-77 between mile marker 23 in Huntersville and mile marker 30 in Davidson.

Both stretches of expressway have only two lanes each way, and slow to a crawl at rush hour.

The I-485 segment is particularly congested, handling 120,000 cars a day – making it one of the state's busiest roads.

The plan would still have to be approved by the Federal Highway Administration. But Kevin Lacy, the state traffic engineer for the N.C. DOT, said federal officials have indicated they would approve the plan.

Said Lacy: “I've gone from cautiously optimistic to very optimistic.”

Local engineers from the N.C. DOT spent several months earlier this year looking for obvious “showstoppers” that would derail the plan. They looked at the quality of asphalt on the shoulders, and whether bridges would be wide enough and whether overpasses would be tall enough to accommodate a third lane.

The consensus is that some lanes might be restriped, possibly shrinking in width. The I-485 project is considered the best candidate because the asphalt on the I-77 shoulder isn't as thick.

The consultant must now determine how to control access to the shoulders, and how much the shoulders must be improved before they can handle traffic at 65 mph.

They also must determine whether it can designate the shoulders with regular signs, or whether it would need electronic signs, which would tell motorists the shoulders are open with a green arrow or closed with a red “X.”

“We could do it in-house, but it might be six months before we could get to it,” Moose said.

Moose said he thinks the federal government will pay for the $200,000 study, and that a consultant could be hired by the fall.

Moose and Lacy recently took a fact-finding trip to Virginia, which uses shoulders in rush hour on I-66 approaching Washington, D.C.

Virginia officials said it would cost about $1 million per mile to retrofit the shoulders. Moose said he didn't think it would cost that much in Mecklenburg.

The state doesn't plan on widening I-485 until 2015. Improving I-77 might not occur until the end of next decade.

Charlotte commuters could be driving on the shoulders of some interstates during rush hour by the end of the decade after a state traffic engineer said he's now optimistic the congestion-relief plan will work.

The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to spend $200,000 on a consultant who will determine how to convert the shoulders into general purpose lanes that could handle traffic at high speeds. The downside for motorists is that the study will probably take six months to complete, meaning the shoulders on Interstates 485 and 77 couldn't be used until late 2009, at the earliest.

“I wish we would have the ball moving faster,” said Barry Moose, a division engineer with the N.C. DOT. “But we have moved it forward.”

Without enough road construction money to relieve congestion, the N.C. Department of Transportation began exploring in late 2007 using shoulders for two high-congestion areas: I-485 between South Boulevard and Johnston Road, and I-77 between mile marker 23 in Huntersville and mile marker 30 in Davidson.

Both stretches of expressway have only two lanes each way, and slow to a crawl at rush hour.

The I-485 segment is particularly congested, handling 120,000 cars a day – making it one of the state's busiest roads.

The plan would still have to be approved by the Federal Highway Administration. But Kevin Lacy, the state traffic engineer for the N.C. DOT, said federal officials have indicated they would approve the plan.

Said Lacy: “I've gone from cautiously optimistic to very optimistic.”

Local engineers from the N.C. DOT spent several months earlier this year looking for obvious “showstoppers” that would derail the plan. They looked at the quality of asphalt on the shoulders, and whether bridges would be wide enough and whether overpasses would be tall enough to accommodate a third lane.

The consensus is that some lanes might be restriped, possibly shrinking in width. The I-485 project is considered the best candidate because the asphalt on the I-77 shoulder isn't as thick.

The consultant must now determine how to control access to the shoulders, and how much the shoulders must be improved before they can handle traffic at 65 mph.

They also must determine whether it can designate the shoulders with regular signs, or whether it would need electronic signs, which would tell motorists the shoulders are open with a green arrow or closed with a red “X.”

“We could do it in-house, but it might be six months before we could get to it,” Moose said.

Moose said he thinks the federal government will pay for the $200,000 study, and that a consultant could be hired by the fall.

Moose and Lacy recently took a fact-finding trip to Virginia, which uses shoulders in rush hour on I-66 approaching Washington, D.C.

Virginia officials said it would cost about $1 million per mile to retrofit the shoulders. Moose said he didn't think it would cost that much in Mecklenburg.

The state doesn't plan on widening I-485 until 2015. Improving I-77 might not occur until the end of next decade.

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