Gaston & Catawba

Some debating necessity of the Gaston parkway

When Charlotte's outerbelt opened last decade, the loop transformed nearby countryside into suburbs.

Backers of a new toll road in Gaston County say the expressway will have a similar impact, sparking economic development.

But a local engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation said the Garden Parkway isn't a top priority. And one transportation expert said the road does too little and costs too much, at $1.25 billion.

“This is a road I have serious questions about,” said David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation at UNC Charlotte. “I have seen no evidence this will reduce congestion.”

At issue is whether the state should build a road anticipating growth, or channel its resources into handling growth that's already here.

The N.C. Turnpike Authority plans to build the parkway with a mix of state funding and tolls. The first segment, from I-485 in western Mecklenburg County to U.S. 321 in Gaston County, is scheduled to open by 2015. The N.C. General Assembly this summer voted in the overall budget bill to give the parkway $35 million annually toward construction. The state is expected to pay about half the total cost.

Economic growth?

Southeast Gaston and northern York counties are only 10 to 15 miles from uptown Charlotte. But it can take 45 minutes or longer to get there because there is no bridge over the Catawba River between U.S. 29/74 and N.C. 49 – a distance of about 10 miles.

With developers building homes in far-flung communities such as Waxhaw, the prospect of a new suburb that's only 20 or 25 minutes from uptown via the parkway would be enticing, some say.

“You are looking at another outerbelt,” said Edna Chirico, a commercial Realtor in Gaston. “Look at what happened at those exits; that's what will happen here. The road doesn't go where people live now, but they will be there.”

Two N.C. politicians have invested in land along a proposed route.

State Sen. David Hoyle, a Gaston Democrat who has championed the parkway, is part of an investment group that bought 327 acres of land near a proposed exit.

An Observer story on Sunday showed that Hoyle continued to lobby for the parkway after buying the land, and has taken at least three votes in the legislature to help build it.

Hoyle said he didn't think about the parkway being close to the land when he bought it.

Lieutenant governor candidate Robert Pittenger, a Republican, has invested in 2,000 acres near four proposed parkway exits. He recused himself from two votes relating to the N.C. Turnpike Authority, which will build the road.

Airport access

Supporters also say the toll road will help Gaston get spinoff jobs from a railyard planned for Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.

Norfolk-Southern is planning to move its intermodal yard north of uptown to the airport, just east of the new runway being built along Interstate 485. The intermodal facility would be a regional transportation hub where trucks carry cargo containers to and from trains.

“Some of the trucking people came to us and said, ‘Let's look at a toll road,'” Hoyle said.

Trucks heading south on I-85 would likely use the parkway during peak travel times. Trucks heading north or south would likely continue to use existing expressways.

“As a transportation and distribution hub, (Gaston) will explode,” said Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan. “The new bridge will tie the area together.”

Critics question need

The case against the parkway is that Gaston County doesn't have the region's worst traffic.

Since 1990, Gaston County has grown much slower than Mecklenburg, York, Union and Cabarrus counties, and slower than the state overall.

In addition, I-85 from Charlotte to Gastonia is one of the region's better roads. It has four lanes each way from uptown to Belmont, and three lanes each way through Gastonia. A Connecticut consultant hired by the N.C. Turnpike Authority wrote in 2006 that I-85 “traffic volumes were quite heavy, approaching the capacity of the facility …. However, under 2006 conditions, relatively little congestion was found.”

The consultant projects the parkway will carry about 40,000 cars a day at the Catawba crossing by 2030, and between 13,000 and 18,000 cars per day west of U.S. 321.

The consultant projected that most trips will be local trips, rather than people driving the entire length of the parkway.

Hartgen agrees, and said he thinks few people will use the parkway as it is intended – as a bypass. He doesn't foresee a significant reduction in I-85 congestion.

Hartgen said there are a number of more important roads that need to be built or improved before the parkway is built.

He said the state's contribution to the parkway – $35 million annually – should be spent on other road projects, such as widening I-77 in south Charlotte and through Huntersville and Mooresville.

He also said finishing I-485 in northeast Mecklenburg and widening it in south Charlotte is a higher priority than the parkway. Those projects are scheduled to begin in 2015.

Mike Holder, an N.C. DOT division engineer who oversees Gaston County, said the parkway has merits, especially the new bridge crossing. But if he had the option, he said he would spend the parkway money on different projects, such as widening I-77 in Iredell County and building a U.S. 74 bypass in Cleveland County.

David Farren is an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who promises to fight the parkway.

He said he opposes the road because it's an “old-style type project” that encourages people to drive. “It's a huge project of questionable necessity,” he said. “This is one of the worst projects in the state of North Carolina.”

The N.C. Turnpike Authority is building other roads, including the Monroe Bypass/Connector and a loop around Raleigh.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer