Charlotte City Councilman Tariq Bokhari pointed out during a Sept. 16 public hearing that discussion of the city’s traffic challenges, particularly along the Providence Road corridor, seems to only happen in a rezoning context.
Since then, Bokhari said he has urged his colleagues to have traffic concerns sent to a committee and partner with the state to solve the problem without attaching it to one rezoning case.
“We’re working toward that, but it’s challenging when folks are only upset about it when there’s a very specific decision at hand that might curry favor with some of the residents that are around there,” Bokhari said. “I think we need to solve that holistically without thinking about one case while we’re doing it.”
The city is working toward a holistic approach to solving the problem as it prepares the “2040 CharlotteFuture Comprehensive Plan,” in which Providence Road will be a key player in the decisions made.
Area plans have allowed planning staff to determine the desired uses for portions of Charlotte. Developers often refer to area plans in their rezoning requests. Some area plans, such as ones along Providence Road, have not been updated since the 1990s and 2000s.
Garet Johnson, assistant director of long range and strategic planning, is the project manager for the comprehensive plan. With the 2040 plan, she said planners will look at the change that has occurred to plan for the future.
“For the comprehensive plan, the intent really is to be the area plan for the whole community, so to speak,” Johnson said. “It’s going to provide a more robust direction in terms of land use and design and a lot of different elements for the entire community. So area planning going forward will be much different because we have that framework in place. Parts of the community that may have changed, we’re taking that into account with the comprehensive plan and it’s almost like, in some ways, doing an area plan for the whole community.”
Johnson said Providence Road is one of the areas the planning department will look at in terms of appropriate land uses in the future.
In the past, area plans were made by looking at one particular area of the city. How the area connects to the rest of the community was not given enough attention in Johnson’s opinion. She said the 2040 plan will take a more comprehensive approach and look at areas like Providence Road in terms of infrastructure, transportation, transit and other capital issues.
“I think with Providence Road, that’s going to be very important because it’s a part of the community,” Johnson said. “It’s a major arterial in our community and it’s not just what happens at a particular intersection or just along that corridor that’s impacting the livability of the corridor, the mobility of the corridor, all of that. So the comprehensive plan is going to address Providence Road as well as all the other arterials.”
Development along Providence Road discussed Sept. 16 has been a recurring discussion, according to Charlotte Department of Transportation Deputy Director Ed McKinney. He said several projects along Providence Road have been brought to city council in the past three to six months.
McKinney said the conversation has always been around how they, as a city, are looking at all of the projects with the N.C. Department of Transportation and helping to understand the cumulative impacts of development and traffic growth on a road like Providence.
“We are, on an ongoing basis, working with those developers to ensure that the specific impacts of those projects are mitigated and appropriate investments that they can make are being made in a road like Providence so that over time, those investments that they’re making cumulatively add up to positive improvements to a road like Providence,” McKinney said.
However, he said this can sometimes be a challenge.
“The fact of the matter is that the pace of growth isn’t always easy to keep up with and the incremental nature of that investment means that we might, in some spots, still have needs that just haven’t been met yet,” McKinney said.
McKinney also said that Providence Road, which is maintained by the state, is used as a pathway to the city and other destinations in Charlotte, making it play a local and a regional role. Because of this, CDOT and NCDOT look at investments that can be made on a road like Providence over time.
One of the main projects McKinney said they are looking at is the I-485 and Providence Road interchange.
“That’s probably one of the hotter areas of congestion,” McKinney said. “We know that and NCDOT knows that and one of the things we’re doing right now is looking at what appropriate and feasible things can be done to improve an interchange like that and we have already identified long-range funding for that.”
They are in the preliminary stages of that project. McKinney said residents will not see the results for another five or six years. However, he wants the community to know there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on before the process is visible.
He said the solutions for Providence will hopefully be long-term.
“We’re working with NCDOT to look at the corridor’s full length essentially from 485 into town to identify long-term investments we might make at key intersections or along the corridor itself,” McKinney said. “We’re figuring out what those projects would be and how much they would cost with the goal of having a long-range plan for the state, local and private development partnership to build some of that investment.”
In the short-term, councilmembers say they hope to resolve the traffic problem on Providence Road and throughout the city by improving the bus system.
Dimple Ajmera, who serves as an at-large member on the board, said her husband spends 45 minutes to an hour traveling along Providence Road to get to south Charlotte for his daily commute, so she has a personal connection to the traffic issue. She said public transportation is the best way to tackle the problem.
“I moved here from Los Angeles and I’ll tell you that widening the road does not solve the problem,” Ajmera said. “I’ve seen that the more roads that are built, there is more traffic and congestion, so widening of the road is not part of the solution. We have to look at our public transportation system where people can move around the city in an efficient and effective manner.”
Bokhari said there is not a short-term solution for the problem, though looking at public transportation is definitely a priority.
Bokhari said it is important to figure out a way to incentivize “the right behavior” from developers and work with the state to keep up with growth in the city. He said it is necessary to anticipate what will disrupt transit next. He believes this could be autonomous vehicles.
“They’re already on the streets right now in select markets and I do believe that if there’s going to be a game change in transit that totally disrupts the way we think of it, it could be from autonomous vehicles,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how to put our city in a position where if that happens, we can benefit from it.”
When putting together the comprehensive plan, Johnson and McKinney said while they are still looking to see what the impacts of autonomous vehicles could look like, they understand there is a possibility they will be on the streets of Charlotte in the future. Therefore, Johnson said the planning department is looking at ways it can incorporate that possibility into the plan.
McKinney said looking at the possibilities will help provide a long-term solution.
“We’re getting to places like Providence Road and many other places in Charlotte where it’s just not physically possible, financially possible or even from a community character, reasonable to widen a road or invest in transportation the way we used to,” McKinney said. “So, technology, single timing to autonomous vehicles to even the scooters, all of these things that are changing, if managed well, will be part of the solution by which we manage growth long-term.”
Johnson said the city’s planning department has made and will continue to make efforts to receive input from the public regarding the 2040 comprehensive plan. She said there have been workshops and pop-ups throughout the city to ensure that all demographics are represented in Charlotte’s future.
There are also opportunities to voice concerns and opinions about the plan online at www.charlottefuture.com/2040.