While opponents of a $647 million plan to widen Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Mooresville continue to challenge the deal, it has become a catalyst for smaller projects, allowing them to move from wish lists to construction schedules.
One of those projects, which a longtime local transportation official jokingly referred to as a future “big, freaking hole under the interstate,” has more to do with foot traffic than vehicle congestion.
In addition to the controversial toll-lane project, the 2016-25 Transportation Improvement Program approved by the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization in August includes $6 million for a “greenway underpass” to run beneath I-77, just north of Exit 23 in Huntersville.
It’s one of a dozen north Mecklenburg projects tapping into $145 million in funding indirectly tied to the state’s contract with a U.S. subsidiary of Spanish company Cintra to design, build and then manage toll lanes on I-77 for 50 years.
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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. The “bonus allocation” funds are designated for projects that will be significantly affected by the I-77 widening.
The Huntersville pedestrian underpass will link existing trails west of the interstate to a proposed town greenway that would run from the U.S. 21 Park and Ride lot, immediately west of the highway, into the downtown area. Such connectivity is long overdue, town officials said.
“I-77 is a major barrier for pedestrians and bicyclists in Huntersville,” said Todd Steiss, chairman of the town’s Greenway, Trail and Bikeway Commission.
The current options for those on foot or bikes to cross the interstate are the same as those for drivers: the Exit 25 bridge at Sam Furr Road, the Exit 23 bridge at Gilead Road, and an overpass at Mt. Holly-Huntersville Road.
“These crossings do not have sidewalks or bike lanes, and most are heavily congested,” Steiss said. “The Gilead Road overpass is particularly dangerous because of the vehicular movement coming on and off I-77.”
Steiss noted another potential benefit of the crossing: It will be part of the multi-county Carolina Thread Trail network.
“It will provide a huge benefit to area residents,” said Carolina Thread Trail Director of Operations Travis Morehead.
Current plans are for the Cintra subsidiary formed for the managed lane project, I-77 Mobility Partners, to also complete the underpass.
“(The sub-highway trail) is currently being planned and designed for implementation as ‘incidental to the highway project,’” said Huntersville Transportation Planner Bill Coxe, who also is a member of CRTPO’s Technical Coordinating Committee. “Note that I am careful to say this is ‘incidental’ to the highway project.”
The distinction is important, Coxe added, because the state’s interpretation of legislation that allows for such public-private partnerships includes a stipulation that all “bonus allocation” funding must be used on projects affected by the widening work.
“Therefore, this constitutes seizing the opportunity to create the passageway,” Coxe said.
The state’s timeline calls for work to begin on the underpass next year, and be completed as early as 2018.
John Deem is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org