By Yustin Riopko
INDIAN TRAIL – Express lanes are just around the bend for Charlotte-area interstates.
That’s why the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization asked the NC Turnpike Authority to increase its outreach of the projects.
The turnpike authority gave a presentation to Indian Trail town leaders at the June 26 town council meeting about the imminent impact of express lanes on I-485 and U.S. 74 (Independence Boulevard) on the region.
Express lanes are optional toll lanes that run within an existing highway corridor. Warren Cooksey, outreach director with the N.C. Turnpike Authority, said express lanes are meant to raise funding for roads and provide faster and more reliable travel times.
According to Cooksey, our region is growing faster than average. Nineteen other metro areas around the country with growing densities have already implemented 40 similar hot lane systems. Forty more are in the works.
“With all this growth, we need cost effective, long-term transportation alternatives,” Cooksey said. “We have a lot of people coming and a lot of people already here. Nobody brought asphalt with them.”
The price of driving in an express lane varies based on the amount of traffic.
“Congestion – in a nutshell – is when the volume of demand exceeds the capacity of a lane. If you put a price on that access, you can regulate the demand and the supply,” Cooksey explained. “A properly functioning variably tolled express lane doesn’t experience congestion, because the toll keeps the traffic flowing. Drivers know that price before choosing.”
Express lanes users can buy a transponder for their cars to allow for automatic billing. Cameras mounted on overhead gantries will note license plates so the NCDOT can mail bills instead, but mailed bills cost more.
Two to four feet of space will delineate toll lanes from the general purpose lanes. In addition to regular access points for drivers to switch between toll and regular lanes on I-485, the project includes “direct connectors” – entrance and exit ramps that bridge straight into express lanes from local streets. The two direct connectors will be located at Johnston Road near Ballantyne and Westinghouse Boulevard near Pineville.
Another aspect of this project will repurpose the bus lanes on U.S. 74.
Because space is more limited there, this six-mile stretch between I-277 uptown and Wallace Lane will actually create only one express lane for both inbound and outbound roads. The time of day will determine its direction, with the other lane serving as a breakdown shoulder in case of emergencies.
The direct connector for this express lane will come from Albemarle Road to better serve drivers in the direction of Matthews and Mint Hill.
Ultimately, the NCDOT’s plan for U.S. 74 is to continue the express lane from Wallace Lane all the way to I-485, and add one general purpose lane, making the entire corridor three regular lanes wide in each direction. This phase of the project will eliminate all traffic signals along the corridor and create parallel road connections in Matthews at places like Northeast Parkway and Independence Point Parkway.
When the project is done, U.S. 74’s express lane will sport direct connections with Sardis Road, Conference Drive and the I-485 express lanes.
Outside of rush hour, it would take about 15 minutes to travel the distance on I-485 between I-77 and U.S. 74 (the area receiving the new toll lanes). The time might vary within a window of four minutes. The same trip during rush hour would take anywhere from 26 to 45 minutes – a 19-minute window of variation.