Construction is expected to begin in 2019 on a $9.2 million project to convert the intersection of U.S. 21 and Catawba Avenue to a roundabout.
The Cornelius Town Board on Monday unanimously approved an agreement allowing the N.C. Department of Transportation to move forward with design, land acquisition and construction on the intersection, just east of the recently completed diverging diamond interchange at I-77 Exit 28.
“The roundabout will provide significant improvement to traffic flow at the intersection” and the diverging diamond interchange, Assistant Town Manager Andrew Grant said.
The roundabout is one in a series of projects aimed at easing congestion on Catawba Avenue, the town’s most-traveled street and one of only two Cornelius links between the east and west sides of I-77.
A widening of West Catawba Avenue from two to four lanes from Jetton Road to I-77 improved flow, but the Exit 28 overpass – with two traditional traffic signals controlling cross traffic and the flow to and from the on- and off-ramps – remained a bottleneck. The diverging diamond design has improved traffic flow without an expensive and disruptive widening of the Catawba Avenue bridge.
However, westbound traffic on the two-lane East Catawba Avenue still backs up at the traditional U.S. 21 intersection, before it reaches the overpass. The multi-lane roundabout is expected move traffic more efficiently to and from the bridge.
While congestion eased with the completion of the diverging diamond, months of lane closures during construction created an outpouring of frustration from drivers and nearby business owners. Cornelius Town Manager Anthony Roberts warned the roundabout project could lead to more of the same.
“That’s going to be hell all over again,” Roberts said. “The biggest choke point is (U.S.) 21. We’ve got to fix that, but it’s going to be painful. We’re going to catch a lot of grief for it because it’s construction, but if we ever get through it, the pain will be worth the gain.”
The roundabout is one of a dozen north Mecklenburg projects whose funding is indirectly tied to a $655 million, public-private partnership to add toll lanes to a 26-mile stretch of I-77 from Charlotte to Mooresville. The state has contracted with a U.S. subsidiary of Spanish company Cintra to design, build and then manage the toll lanes for 50 years. Cintra is financing most of the cost of the project and will be repaid through tolls it collects from drivers using the “managed lanes” over the life of the contract.
More than two-thirds ($6.7 million) of the roundabout’s costs are expected to be covered through “bonus allocation” funds designated for projects that will be significantly impacted by the I-77 widening.
The bonus funding allowed the roundabout and other projects to move up the priority list of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, a panel made up of elected officials from Mecklenburg and Iredell counties that ranks federally funded road projects in the two counties.
Cornelius is contributing a maximum of $502,000 to the roundabout project. The town’s agreement with N.C. DOT requires the state to cover any cost overruns.
John Deem is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.