New landmark to emerge on Interstate 77 at Lake Norman

After months of traffic delays, the new diverging diamond interchange at Interstate 77’s Exit 28 is finally open, but it awaits a finishing touch – a feature that could do for Cornelius what the Peachoid did for Gaffney, S.C.

In January, the town will erect steel cables that will rise 42 feet to resemble two sails soaring over I-77.

Catawba and West Catawba avenues, after all, “are Lake Norman’s Main Street,” said Bill Russell, president of the 1,000-member Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.

Russell said it would please him if the design slows I-77 traffic as motorists gawk at the bridge. That could coax more travelers onto Catawba and West Catawba avenues and into stores, he said.

“It’s going to create the image of a lake community and be tremendously significant in pulling motorists off I-77,” Russell said.

Blythe Construction of Charlotte plans to raise the cables on the first weekend in January. Blythe is the general contractor on the $6.2 million Exit 28 diverging diamond project.

The mast arms are 38 feet tall, but the cables will rise a total of 42 feet given the added height of the pedestrian barriers to which the cables will be attached. The barriers are in the middle of West Catawba Avenue on the bridge.

The chamber and town pushed for that weekend to avoid having construction clog holiday traffic. The masts that will hold the cables will be installed at night over the next few weeks. The bridge will be illuminated at night.

Blythe will have to close the bridge on only that single Saturday to install the cables. The I-77 ramps will remain open, steering traffic in one direction on Catawba and West Catawba.

The town contributed $2 million to the state’s $6.2 million Exit 28 diverging diamond project to pay for burying utility lines and the bridge’s architectural features, which also will include decorative brick.

Mayor Chuck Travis and Town Manager Anthony Roberts drove to Raleigh on Tuesday to lobby Susan Kluttz, secretary of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, for more architectural enhancement money. The money would come from a special bridge enhancement fund announced by Gov. Pat McCrory, Travis said.

The town can concentrate on architectural work now that the traffic patterns opened about three weeks ago.

A diverging diamond intersection allows two directions of traffic to cross to the left side of the road while on the bridge. Once there, vehicles can turn left onto the I-77 ramps without stopping and without conflicting with through-traffic.

That makes such interchanges far safer than traditional interchanges and less traffic-clogged, transportation officials said.

Diverging diamonds first appeared in France in the 1970s. The first such U.S. interchange opened in Springfield, Mo., in 2009, and diverging diamonds have spread to North Carolina and other states.

Other diverging diamonds planned, underway or open in the Charlotte area include Poplar Tent Road and N.C. 73 on I-85 in Cabarrus County, and I-485 at Mallard Creek Road in northern Mecklenburg County.

While new traffic patterns can confuse motorists at first, no head-on collisions or other major wrecks have been reported on exit 28 since the diverging diamond opened, Cornelius police spokeswoman Betsy Shores said.

Jim Dolan, who lives in the Magnolia Estates subdivision, said he continues to notice some tie-ups heading east on West Catawba at the bridge but thinks it could be initial confusion over the new patterns.

Over the next 1 1/2 years, the intersections of Catawba Avenue and U.S. 21 and West Catawba and Liverpool Parkway will be improved near Exit 28, and that could mean new delays, Travis warned.

“I don’t think there’s any bridge on any interstate,” said the chamber’s Russell, “that will look as spectacular as this bridge is going to look.”

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