Gaston County leaders are pushing for a new highway and bridge over the Catawba River, but the project is facing opposition from others in the region who say it wouldn’t be worth the money.
The $200 million highway that would begin at Interstate 485 near Charlotte Douglas International Airport, cross the Catawba River and then dead-end at N.C. 279 in south Gaston. The project was dreamed up after the Garden Parkway, a much longer and more expensive highway, was essentially killed by the N.C. General Assembly after it scored poorly in state rankings.
The new project, Catawba Crossings, has been nicknamed the “Son of Garden Parkway.”
The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization was asked this past week to designate the Catawba Crossing project as a “regional” project, which would make it eligible for more regional transportation funding. The project had previously been scored as a local project, and it scored poorly in the state rankings.
As a regional project, Catawba Crossings would be eligible for money dedicated to Mecklenburg, Iredell and Union counties.
Gastonia Mayor Pro Tem Todd Pierceall, a member of CRTPO, said the project is needed to relieve congestion on Interstate 85.
“It’s really important to the River District development too,” he said. “Both sides of the river could greatly benefit from this.”
The River District is a massive new development by Lincoln Harris and Cresent Communities on 1,300 acres west of Charlotte Douglas Airport.
While numerous Gaston officials are enthusiastic about the Catawba Crossings project, others in the region are concerned.
Mint Hill Mayor Ted Biggers, a CRTPO voting member, said Catawba Crossing is “a lot of pork.”
Mecklenburg Commissioner Jim Puckett, another CRTPO member, said the project isn’t a high priority because the N.C. Department of Transportation is planning to widen I-85 in Gaston County. He said he supports thinking regionally, but “from a financial perspective the idea of investing nearly half our funds into a project that has greater financial upside to a neighbor while adding little to our bottom line” isn’t wise, he said.
Puckett recently urged officials in other nearby municipalities to lobby Charlotte officials to not support the project. The city of Charlotte has nearly half of the weighted votes on the planning organization.
Having a new bridge across the Catawba River has long been a dream of Gaston business leaders.
Today, there are no ways to cross the river between the N.C. 74 bridge near Interstate 85 and the N.C. 49 bridge that crosses into South Carolina.
The Garden Parkway was a roughly 20-mile, $800 million highway that would have cut across south Gaston County, ending at Interstate 485 at the same spot as Catawba Crossings. Gaston officials said the project would have helped relieve congestion on I-85 and also better connect the county to Charlotte economically.
But the parkway had critics who said it wasn’t needed. When former Gov. Pat McCrory’s new scoring system for transportation projects was started early in his term, the parkway had a low rating, making it a longshot for funding.
Gaston officials then created Catawba Crossings, a smaller version of the parkway.
Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles suggested that CRTPO get more information on the project before making a decision. She said the area needed to have an open mind about building the Catawba Crossings highway and bridge. She said the highway is about “access for economic development.”
“We have a workforce development issue,” she said.
Lyles urged CRTPO to delay a vote on making Catawba Crossings a regional project. CRTPO members agreed, and will hear more information from staff before making a final decision.
But most CRTPO members are skeptical.
Mark Gibbons of Huntersville said Gaston County could still try to build the highway on its own, without the regional designation.
“We’re not putting a stake in the heart,” he said. “We’re letting them go at it at the division level.”