Peter St. Onge

An open mind on closed I-485 lane

This is a story about good government.

This also is a story about bad government.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two.

That’s the kind of deep thought you have time to ponder if you’re sitting in rush hour traffic on Interstate 485 in south Charlotte.

You also might have pondered, while you’re memorizing the license plate in front of you, why there is an extra I-485 lane that’s not being used. In fact, as the Observer’s Steve Harrison reported this week, there are no plans to use that virgin asphalt for up to five years.

This is an example of good government. Yes, really. That extra, unused lane was supposed to be part of an I-485 toll-lane project later this decade, but N.C. Department of Transportation officials decided that money and construction congestion could be saved if they included the lane as part of a different I-485 widening that was completed late last year.

The state saved $18 million, NCDOT says, and drivers were spared future construction slowdowns. Good government.

Except for one bit of oversight: No one seemed to think about the optics of an unused traffic lane taunting stop-and-go drivers every day for five years. Bad government.

Simply opening the lane is not an option, because federal law forbids states from turning existing highway lanes into toll roads. That law, which was passed in conjunction with the post-World War II construction of interstate highways, is designed to prevent revenue-hungry states from going crazy putting tolls on taxpayer-funded roads. (That’s good government preventing bad government. If you’re getting dizzy, please pull over.)

On Thursday, Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter came up with a loophole of sorts. He said he would ask NCDOT officials if they could make the I-485 lane a carpool lane until it turns into a toll lane somewhere around 2020. NCDOT spokesman Warren Cooksey immediately pumped the brakes on that idea, telling the Observer that creating an HOV lane is “not as simple as re-striping.”

What more would have to happen? Cooksey told me Friday that environmental and noise studies would need to be done on the new lane. But those studies have to be done at some point, anyway.

Cooksey also says that DOT staff might have to be reassigned to opening the unused lane. But, he said, “you don’t know for certain.”

So let’s be certain. DOT officials should determine what it would take to open the unused I-485 real estate as an HOV lane – and what issues it might raise. Then decide: Does trading a little shuffling of resources for a lot of driver relief make sense?

Gov. Pat McCrory seemed open to the conversation Friday, declaring in a statement that the state would review “all options.” All of which is at least a little frustrating to NCDOT officials, who did pretty much what they were supposed to do. They saved money. They saved future construction driving hassles. They even let the public know as far back as 2012 about the unused lane-to-be, Cooksey says.

But that presumes the public pays attention to those types of things.

So yes, frustrating. But there’s one more important thing to remember about the public: That’s who’s paying for the roads. We invite DOT officials to contemplate that, preferably around 5 p.m. on I-485 in south Charlotte next week.