Drivers, officials banter over I-485 widening, woes

Drivers in south Mecklenburg want congestion on Interstate 485 fixed now, and weren’t interested in excuses about “other important projects,” “limited state road funds” or “air quality standards” at a transportation forum in Ballantyne last weekend.

Louis Mitchell, the area engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and Norm Steinman, with the Charlotte Department of Transportation, spoke Saturday, Dec. 1, at a meeting of the Ballantyne Breakfast Club advocacy group. They laid out details about the widening of I-485 and future toll lanes to about 100 people at the Ballantyne Hotel.

The state and local transportation experts, including state Sen. Bob Rucho, seemed frustrated at times with a handful of people who aren’t satisfied with the updates about I-485 – that widening of the interstate to three lanes both ways in the Ballantyne area would happen a year earlier than originally thought, and that a fourth lane each way could be coming soon in the form of toll lanes. What is considered as good news for transportation leaders isn’t enough for some who say the road was poorly planned from the initial stages and officials haven’t done enough to deal with the population explosion in the area.

Drivers asked the transportation officials why the state simply wouldn’t pay for fixing I-485 right now, while putting other projects around the state on the back burner if necessary to pay for the Charlotte-area project. One area resident expressed her frustration over money being spent on N.C. 12 – a coastal highway destroyed by Hurricane Sandy which often is damaged in hurricane season – and asked if projects like that were setting back needed I-485 work.

Mitchell and Rucho worked to explain the complicated process in how transportation dollars are spent around the state, saying money is split between regions and then each region must decide how to spend its allotment. Charlotte falls into Division 10, which also covers Stanly, Cabarrus, Union and Anson counties. Division 10 officials could opt to spend all the division’s money on I-485, but then wouldn’t be able to afford work on any other roads in those counties. But with I-485 being one of the busiest corridors in the state, some might say that would be worth it.

Between 110,000 to 135,000 vehicles a day pass through the congested stretch of I-485 from Interstate 77 and Johnston Road, and though Mitchell was adamant Saturday that it isn’t the worst stretch of road in North Carolina, the portion of I-485 was named one of the most congested in the country by a national transportation magazine and is ranked with a grade of F (the worst) by the NCDOT.

“It’s not the worst road,” Mitchell said on Saturday, “it’s one of the worst.”

So, the state is taking action, and the widening of I-485 to at least six lanes between I-77 and Rea Road starts next year. But the widening for now won’t include opening the much-discussed toll lanes in south Mecklenburg.

Mitchell said people should start seeing physical work on I-485 in the spring, as Lane Construction starts adding another lane in each direction between I-77 and Rea. Crews are required to maintain two lanes of traffic at all times, Mitchell said, adding “we will try to make those delays and those shut downs” occur during non-peak times, such as over night and weekends.

The work will include an extra wide paved shoulder, which for now will remain just that. Steinman said the extra space likely will be turned into the proposed toll lanes, one in each direction, but when that might happen is unclear. The project currently is under evaluation.

Though the space will be there for an extra lane, officials on Saturday said it can’t simply be made into another general purpose lane because of the area’s poor air quality scores, to the frustration of many in attendance. Environmental standards don’t allow a fourth general purpose lane in both directions, unless that fourth lane is a toll lane since that would promote good air-quality efforts such as car pooling, Steinman said.

So why wouldn’t crews just make that paved shoulder into toll lanes when they widen I-485 over the next few years, drivers asked Saturday. Officials worry that might just make a bad situation worse in south Mecklenburg.

Steinman and Mitchell said adding the toll lanes now may just cause more traffic issues since the lanes would suddenly end at Rea Road and cause merging delays like what drivers see at South Boulevard. They don’t want to move forward on the project until the second phase of toll lanes – between Rea and U.S. 74 – can be done. It’s not clear when that would happen.

The lanes could become part of a much larger road system in the Mecklenburg County area, as officials will soon add toll lanes on I-77 north from Uptown toward Mooresville and are looking at adding toll lanes south on I-77 from Uptown to South Carolina, and along U.S. 74 from Uptown toward Union County. Steinman said Saturday that eventually drivers will be able to move from the three separate toll lanes without having to leave the lanes, though that will be far into the future.

The I-77 toll lanes in south Mecklenburg could cost nearly $1 billion, according to one estimate.

Also discussed Saturday are local road improvements in Ballantyne, the biggest of which is North Community House Road. The Bissell Companies, through a partnership with the city, county and state, are improving a number of roads and intersections around the Ballantyne Corporate Park. The company is paying for the work – around $11 million in all – and will get some or all of that money back through increased tax revenues created by the improved infrastructure.

The North Community House project currently stretches from Ballantyne Commons Parkway to where the road dead-ends near I-485. Crews have installed dual left turn lanes at three corners of the Ballantyne Commons intersection (not including turning left from Ballantyne Commons onto North Community House going south) and added a lane in both directions on North Community House. Clifton Coble, who is in charge of the projects as president of Bissell Development, said much of the work should be done within two weeks.

“If you haven’t been down North Community House Road in the last six months, you should,” Coble said on Saturday.

The bigger part of the project comes next, as crews widening I-485 will build a bridge on North Community House to extend it over the interstate and connect the road to Johnston Road. The bridge will connect the two ends of Ballantyne and create walking and biking paths through the area. Officials said environmental reports regarding the project should be approved this week, meaning crews can then decide when to build the bridge during the I-485 widening. Bissell Companies officials have said they want the bridge built as soon as possible so people can start using North Community House to bypass traffic on Johnston Road.

Other Ballantyne projects include the realignment of John J. Delaney Drive and intersection work at Ballantyne Commons and Johnston Road.

Improvements to John J. Delaney are varied. Currently, drivers on Brixham Hill Drive come to a stop and must turn left or right onto John J. Delaney. With the new traffic pattern, Brixham Hill will flow straight into John J. Delaney heading toward Johnston Road, which should help with people coming into and out of the business park each day. Drivers will have to turn at a stop sign to take John J. Delaney to Ballantyne Commons Parkway.

The improvements also will fix the intersection of Conlan Circle and John J. Delaney near Johnston. The intersection has been plagued by accidents and is ranked as one of the worst in the city. A new median will make it impossible for drivers to turn left from John J. Delaney onto Conlan at that end of the street. Coble said work has been delayed due to how many utility lines for the corporate park run along the work zone.

The Ballantyne Commons at Johnston project consists of creating dual right turn lanes on Ballantyne Commons to travel north on Johnston Road.

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