Key voice backs I-485 over I-85 widening

Thanks to the General Assembly this summer agreeing to help fund the Monroe Connector/Bypass in Union County, our local N.C. Department of Transportation office has $180 million to spend.

Barry Moose, the DOT division engineer who oversees much of the Charlotte area, had been socking the money away in case the state didn't chip in for the Monroe toll road. Now he has a pot of money that can help untangle Charlotte congestion.

Moose has said he wants to spend the money on one critical road project, rather than directing it to a number of smaller projects. The two most likely candidates for the windfall would be to expedite construction of the Interstate 485 in northeast Mecklenburg or to widen all of Interstate 85 through Cabarrus County.

Now the local representative on the N.C. Board of Transportation has weighed in. Marion Cowell thinks the $180 million should be directed to I-485.

“They are both fabulous projects,” said Cowell, who spoke to the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization Wednesday night. “I-85 is critical to the state, but I-485 has been out there for 30 years.”

Cowell represents Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Stanly, Anson and Union counties.

The current schedule calls for construction to start on the last I-485 segment to begin in 2015. It would likely be finished in 2017 or 2018.

Cowell proposes that the local DOT office work out a deal with Raleigh in which it would build the road now and then be reimbursed in 2015. Other N.C. cities have worked out similar deals with the state, he said.

He said the state could begin buying land for the road in 2009, and start construction in 2011.

I-85 is currently two lanes each throughout Cabarrus. The state plans to widen the road from Bruton Smith Boulevard to N.C. 73 in 2011. Widening the rest of the expressway through Cabarrus is unfunded.

Cowell said the DOT recently found the I-85 widening will be more expensive than originally thought. The reason: In addition to the widening the road, the state must resurface the entire highway because of the poor quality of the highway.

Finishing I-485 will likely cost $195 to $200 million, meaning the state would have to find some additional money.

Cabarrus politicians like Concord Mayor Scott Padgett have lobbied for the money to be spent there, arguing that I-85 is critical to the state's economy.

A formal decision on what to do with the money won't come until 2009. The N.C. Turnpike Authority will formalize financing on the Monroe Connector/Bypass next summer, and it's possible it could have a shortfall. That would mean some of the $180 million might have to be directed back to the Union County road.

Finish date for segment of I-485

Virginia Beach-based Skanska said it's still planning to open a segment of Interstate 485 in late October. The project, from N.C. 16 to a major interchange at I-77 and N.C. 115, was supposed to be finished in the spring 2007. Skanska said it's sticking by its latest target date, set this summer.

The contractor has begun putting up overhead signs. It still has some shoulder work to finish, and it hasn't striped the road.

More parking or longer LYNX?

One reader asked whether CATS should extend the Lynx Blue Line to Carowinds instead of building additional parking at the southern end of the line.

If the question is whether CATS should extend it, the answer might be yes. If the question is will it, the answer is probably not. At least not for many years.

The Charlotte Area Transit System built the 1,100-space parking deck at the South Boulevard/Interstate 485 station for $22 million.

Extending the train to Carowinds would cost at least $100 million.

In the future, CATS will likely extend the Blue Line south, perhaps to Fort Mill, perhaps to Ballantyne. It could also split the line and make two spurs.

But any southern extension would come after a long list of other rail projects that have priority: Extending the Lynx to the northeast; building commuter rail to the Lake Norman area; building a streetcar through central Charlotte.

The half-cent sales tax generates about $25 million annually that can be used for capital projects. Unless the federal government opens the tap, sending more money to Charlotte for transit, any southern extension won't happen for 20 years.

Bad timing for light at Harris and Rocky River

Garvey Pyke e-mailed last month with a question about the timing of the traffic light at W.T. Harris Boulevard and Rocky River Road. He has passed through that intersection for five years, always sailing through the light. But recently the traffic light tripped him up, and he sat in what he said was a “looooong line of cars.”

The Charlotte Department of Transportation said it hadn't done anything deliberately to change the light. But it found the timings weren't set property and corrected it early this month.

More Hall of Fame traffic headaches

The intersection of Stonewall Street and Brevard Street will be closed from Friday at 6 p.m. until Sunday at 9 a.m. The closure will accommodate construction for the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the remaking of the Interstate 277/Caldwell Street interchange.