Federal study could speed push to widen I-485

An environmental study for the Interstate 485 widening could make it easier to expand the road today with a carpool lane, a move backed by some south Charlotte motorists.

When the state prepared its environmental report for I-485 in 2012, the Department of Transportation told the federal government it planned to use the extra lane for either a carpool lane or an express toll lane. The federal government approved the document.

In December, the N.C. Department of Transportation’s widening project greatly improved traffic flow, but the highway can still be clogged at rush hour.

As part of the project, DOT created an extra-wide shoulder from I-77 to Rea Road that it plans to convert in the future to a toll lane. The extra pavement is essentially ready for use today, but the DOT doesn’t plan to open the lane until 2019 or 2020.

Because it’s difficult under federal regulations to convert a free lane to a toll lane, the DOT has decided against using the lane now. But one option would be to open the lane as a carpool lane, which can be switched to a toll lane in the future.

Gov. Pat McCrory said last week the DOT would look at ways to use the lane sooner rather than later.

The DOT has said that a potential hurdle in creating a carpool lane would be environmental impact studies. The Observer this week reviewed the 2012 environmental document, which is known as a “Revised Categorical Exclusion.”

In the document, the N.C. DOT states that “this paved shoulder is proposed to be converted as part of a future project to include managed lanes from I-77 to US 74.”

In the document, the state defined a managed lane as carpool lanes (HOV Lanes) and express toll lanes (HOT Lanes).

The state said it plans to begin construction on the toll lanes from I-77 to U.S. 74 in the first part of 2018.

If the state opened the new lane today, it would spread some of the existing traffic out, possibly making the commute faster.

But part of the congestion today is due to the outerbelt going from three lanes each to two lanes at Rea Road. Adding another lane would force more cars to merge, which could create some congestion on its own.

Some Charlotte residents believe the lane should be opened now, and have started a Facebook page, Open Our Lane.

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