As cars whizzed by, Mary Hopper, president of the University City Partnership, stood behind a podium at the intersection of North Tryon Street and the Interstate 85 Connector and declared to a small crowd what she has wanted to say for years:
"Today we wave goodbye to 'The Weave,' and hello to the Niner Gateway," Hopper said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Oct. 26 for the much-anticipated new traffic pattern created by the U.S. 29/N.C. 49 Roadway Improvement Project.
The project, designed to improve connectivity and safety where U.S. 29, N.C. 49 and I-85 meet in University City, was completed last month - 10 months ahead of its original three-year schedule.
The old traffic system, dubbed "The Weave" by locals for its complicated braiding of the three highways, has been a confusing and often dangerous headache for commuters for decades.
The new pattern, which stretches from Orchard Trace Drive to Brookside Lane, includes new intersections at the I-85 Connector and at University City Boulevard, plus five miles of sidewalks, four miles of bike paths and a wider median along the four-lane divided highway to accommodate the light rail that someday will connect Center City to University City.
"It gives our community choices on how they can move through this area," said Liz Babson, deputy director for the Charlotte Department of Transportation.
CDOT and city officials cited the high number of car wrecks in the area as one of the initial reasons for improving the roads.
"That Weave had a lot of accidents and a lot of traffic backup every day," said City Council member Michael Barnes, who represents Charlotte's District 4.
As of January 2009, before construction began, North Tryon generally carried an average of 30,000 vehicles per day, according to CDOT. But in the section between the I-85 Connector and University City Boulevard, it got as high as 67,300 vehicles per day.
In the three years from 2008 to 2011, the area saw 283 vehicle wrecks, 11 involving pedestrians and one involving a bicycle, according to CDOT. Of those wrecks, three involved fatalities (one pedestrian, one bicyclist and one motorist).
Bryan Holladay, who lives in University City, is relieved to see the confusing tangle of roads finally straightened out.
"You would have people come off of 85, then merge into Tryon. Then you would have to cut across the lanes to get on 49," said Holladay. "You would have to do all of that without any stoplights. The Weave did not mitigate traffic smoothly."
"It wasn't safe, and it was very confusing," said Hopper, a driving force behind the project. The partnership funded an urban boulevard study early that provided data to show the best ways to design the roads' intersections.
CDOT also sought input from the community, including area medical centers, Charlotte Motor Speedway and UNC Charlotte officials.
A constant collaboration between the partnership, CDOT, the city and construction officials throughout the project's progress, said Hopper, resulted in a traffic pattern that left everyone happy.
Earlier versions involved the use of a bridge, which many believed was a needless expense that didn't benefit the area.
The use of at-grade intersections, instead, will open the opportunity for development along the roads, said Tom Lambert, senior project engineer for Gannett Fleming Inc., which designed the pattern. That's something The Weave did not allow, he said.
"It was a different time. This was a much more rural area," said Lambert of the days when The Weave was first constructed. "You can see over the years, as development moved out this way from town, that it more or less skipped this whole area. It just leapfrogged right over it."
The $25.5 million project also included $5 million of utility work, improving water pressure for current and future growth in the area.
The final project cost is expected to be about $1.5 million under budget, because of revenue from the sale of land parcels acquired during the project. The eight developable parcels total 8.27 acres with a tax value of $1,674,500 and are being put on the market, according to CDOT.