Toll lanes put on back burner for I-485

Widening between I-77 to Rea moving forward without toll lanes for now

by Mike Parks

The North Carolina Department of Transportation is widening Interstate 485 in south Mecklenburg in an effort to cut down on congestion seen along the highway in the morning and evening. But plans to add toll lanes on I-485 between Interstate 77 and Johnston Road have been delayed for now. The addition of general purpose lanes between I-77 and Rea Road is still on schedule to start early next year. SCW file photo

Road officials have backed off their plan to start adding toll lanes to Interstate 485 in south Mecklenburg for now so the vital widening won’t be delayed any further.

State transportation leaders wanted to add a toll lane in each direction of I-485 between Interstate 77 and Johnston Road in the Ballantyne area. But after it was recently decided that the toll lanes would push the widening project back by a couple years, officials decided to drop the plan for now in favor of a smaller project that could start in early 2013.

“We’re doing what we’re doing because I don’t want to delay” this project, said Barry Moose, N.C. Department of Transportation Division 10 engineer. “There’s some merit to waiting, but at the same time that delays any kind of relief at all in the area.”

The stretch of I-485 is one of the most congested segments of highway in the entire country, according to a recent study. And the state transportation department graded the stretch an F – the worst possible score. The current project will add a general purpose lane in both directions between I-77 and Rea Road, increasing the highway to three general purpose lanes both ways and an auxiliary lane which ends at I-77 and Johnston Road. Moose hopes that relieves some of the pressure drivers feel in the morning and evening commutes, but he knows it can only do so much for a road that’s been stretched to its limit since it was first built. Some 100,000 to 124,000 vehicles use the interstate daily, and those numbers are expect to double by 2030.

That’s why Moose says, eventually, the toll roads must come. Otherwise, the state likely can’t pay to widen the road any further in the current economic climate.

“We’re going to build the pavement infrastructure wide enough (with the 2013 widening) to come back and do the toll lanes,” Moose said. That should make it easier for crews to add toll lanes without causing as many delays or having to tear up extra pavement. It also should make the project cheaper.

Exactly when the toll lanes would be built, or how long they’d be, is still up in the air. Moose said he hopes the project won’t be pushed too far into the future, maybe only two to five years, though “with road building it’s hard to really forecast with a lot of confidence.” As for the length, Moose hopes to add toll lanes all the way from I-77 to Independence Boulevard in eastern Mecklenburg County.

Now state and city leaders are working to see what drivers in south Mecklenburg think about toll lanes, and how receptive they’d be to such a project in the near future. A Charlotte Department of Transportation fast lane study is trying to determine driver interest in toll lanes on not only I-485, but I-77 in north Mecklenburg, the Garden Parkway through Gaston County and U.S. 74 and the Monroe Bypass.

The study identified the I-485 stretch as “a high-priority corridor in need of some toll lanes,” Moose said.

South Charlotte residents will start getting calls soon asking for their input on toll lanes, and some residents may be asked to join a focus group to discuss the issues. A number of public forums also are scheduled to get feedback. The next is Tuesday, April 17, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Pineville Hut, 413 Johnston Drive. Two more events may be held in June in Ballantyne.

City leaders will next discuss the toll lanes at a workshop June 7.

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