Traffic in the Lake Norman area is a subject of increasing frustration and debate, especially the toll lane project on I-77. But the larger context of this complex issue is as clear as the lake on a sun-splashed spring morning.
The region’s exploding population of the past couple decades, uninterrupted by the second-worst economic meltdown in our country’s history, is poised to continue well into the future. Making the right planning decisions for local road travel is especially crucial in light of a study by the Urban Land Institute earlier this decade that projected a 52 percent population increase for the region by 2030. That includes a 58 percent rise in Mooresville/South Iredell County, 67 percent in Cornelius, 70 percent in Davidson and 84 percent in Huntersville, where the population almost doubled between 2000 and 2010.
Adding to this urgency: The state’s 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan for the Charlotte area that was adopted in 2006 included a commuter rail – the Red Line – designed to address this population surge by easing traffic in the Lake Norman area. But funding issues have stalled that plan indefinitely.
Deborah Palmer, a process design manager for a Charlotte bank, has seen the good and the bad aspects of growth during her 19 years as a Mooresville resident. She’s seen some road improvements, but remains among the many commuters who have had to get creative about avoiding driving logjams.
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“The traffic has gotten progressively worse,” she says. “Highway 150 is a mess. We plan our routes to try and avoid Highway 150 as much as possible.”
The good news is that some relief may be available down the road on state and federal highways. The bad news is that in some cases, the road is farther in the distance than many would like.
Motorists who battle U.S. 21 got a break in January when the N.C. Board of Transportation announced that construction at U.S. 21/Gilead Road Exit 123 will be moved up a year to 2018; and widening for a 2.3-mile stretch of U.S. 21 (Gilead Road to Holly Point Drive) will begin in 2020, four years ahead of the original timetable. A two-mile stretch in Cornelius between Northcross Center Court and Westmoreland Road also got that four-year bump.
More help for N.C. 150, N.C. 73 and N.C. 115 is coming, though some of it several years away at best. The North Carolina Department of Transportation plans to expand N.C. 150 to four lanes from its intersection with I-77 to N.C. 16 just north of Denver. Work on that 13.5-mile portion is to begin in 2019.
N.C. DOT plans eight projects along N.C. 73, the crucial east-west artery that is Huntersville’s main business route, but not until 2021 at the earliest.
The dominant subject remains the controversial 26-mile, $647 million Interstate 77 toll project that some are still fighting even though construction began in November. Estimated completion for the toll lanes is 2018 or 2019.
Opponents of the I-77 project gained more ammunition when they learned in early March that a subsidiary of Cintra – the Madrid, Spain-based company that holds the I-77 contract – declared bankruptcy on a road it operates in Texas. Gov. Pat McCrory has ordered N.C. DOT to reassess the Cintra deal.
For some, this hits close to home; for Dennis Hoertt, it hits close to homes. Hoertt spends about two-thirds of his time at his Lake Norman-area residence and the remainder at his home in Frisco, Texas. (According to a 2007 report, North Carolina has the largest state-maintained highway network in the United States, followed by Texas.)
Hoertt wonders why the traffic situation has come to this. Though Frisco has a much larger population than Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville combined, it’s an affluent, high-growth area that he says makes for a natural comparison.
“Realizing I am not an urban planner – just a guy trying to get around in traffic – I have noticed the following,” he says. “In Lake Norman, first we build the houses, then we build the stores and restaurants, and then we build the infrastructure like roads to support the growth.
“In Frisco, it appears that this happens in the reverse order. First they build the roads, and only then are there permits issued for houses and shopping. To me, that appears to make ultimate sense.”
Brian Jenest of the Davidson Board of Commissioners says the rampaging population has made planning difficult. “We’ve just seen so much growth in our area, and unfortunately we haven’t been able to keep up. Also, we’re so constrained by the geography with the lake that people just have to get on 77.”
The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization representatives voted 14-7 in January to continue supporting toll lanes for I-77. But officials from Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville and Iredell County were among those voting no, including Jenest.
Jenest says he’s in favor of managed lanes in general, just not the public-private partnership with Cintra. He cites the 50-year commitment with a far-away company and design challenges among his concerns. Many worry about what the toll fee will be, the financial health of the company, and whether toll lanes will significantly improve traffic flow in general-purpose lanes.
Though some people oppose any kinds of toll lanes, Jenest agrees with Cintra and N.C. DOT officials that managed lanes – done correctly – can provide predictability in terms of travel times.
Lake Norman Transportation Commission Executive Director Bill Thunberg says the I-77 toll project is on schedule, with grading to begin in early April. Speed limits in the work zones will be 65 mph, dropping to 55 if there are lane closures. Some of the rumble strips are to be ground down by the end of April.
Meanwhile, he notes “there is about $450 million worth of projects in the area other than the I-77 express lanes. There’s a lot of work going on to address those things. … There are also local projects that are being funded and several of the jurisdictions that are funded with local bond money or general-fund money.”
Jenest says that with the help of N.C. DOT Bonus Allocation funds, Davidson and Huntersville are planniong connectors that will essentially provide a bypass for their downtowns. On a larger scale, “We’ve got to work hard to improve the other north-south roads, like U.S. 21. We have some widening that is going to be taking place as part of Bonus Allocation dollars. We’ve got to look at 21; we’ve got to look at 115, which are the parallel roads that were there before 77.
“We’ve got to look at making improvements so that the citizens who are up in north Mecklenburg who have no other alternative but to pay the tolls and get on the toll lanes have other ways to get into Charlotte.”