Advocacy group to discuss current, future widening of highway in south Meck

Ballantyne residents will get another shot to voice their concerns about a road many feel was already overburdened the day it opened, when state transportation leaders discuss new details about the widening of Interstate 485 next month.

Drivers will soon see some preliminary work on I-485 in south Mecklenburg, where next year crews will start widening the road between Interstate 77 and Rea Road. That project will take the 9-mile stretch of road from four lanes to six – not including a seventh “auxiliary lane” in the inner loop – and hopefully improve what’s become one of the worst areas of congestion in North Carolina.

But the widening could be just one step in a process that has gone back and forth in discussions over the last two years.

State transportation leaders, including former area engineering manager Barry Moose, and N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho have discussed the possibility of adding toll lanes to I-485 in south Mecklenburg. The idea has bounced around with no firm timeline on when the project would happen, but as crews prepare to widen I-485 it’s a topic that soon will move into the forefront. Rucho has said toll lanes may be the only way to widen I-485 any further due to limited transportation funds available to the state.

That’s one of a number of topics expected to be discussed at the upcoming Ballantyne Breakfast Club advocacy meeting, when new area engineering manager Louis Mitchell comes together with Rucho and Charlotte transportation officials to talk about widening options.

The projects definitely coming to south Charlotte look like this:

• Lane Construction Corp. will likely start construction on widening I-485 between I-77 and Rea Road in May or June of 2013. Preliminary work will start sooner.

The stretch currently becomes a nightmare in the morning and evening commutes, with state transportation leaders saying more than 121,000 vehicles a day pass through the roughly 9 miles of road. The numbers just get worse over time, with officials expecting that to double by 2030. The N.C. Department of Transportation gives a grade of F – the worst possible score and something leaders equated to “failure” – to the portion of roadway roughly from I-77 to Johnston. Expanding the interstate to six lanes, along with a seventh “auxiliary lane” in the inner loop for a few miles, will only increase that grade to a D, said a state transportation official at a September 2011 meeting in Ballantyne.

While widening the stretch, crews will leave some space in the median that could eventually become a toll lane in each direction. But until the state decides whether to add toll lanes to I-485 or not, that lane will likely remain an extra wide general traffic lane for some time. If toll lanes are approved, crews then could mark the extra wide lane and create a toll lane without causing too much disruption to traffic.

• Also included in the widening is the Johnston Road flyover – a key tool to alleviate back-ups on Johnston Road and get vehicles onto the inner loop of I-485 more efficiently. Currently, vehicles going north on Johnston Road have to wait to turn left and access the inner loop. The flyover will allow vehicles to keep moving in the right lane of north Johnston Road, then “fly over” Johnston Road and connect with the on-ramp for the inner loop.

• Another key aspect of the project is the North Community House bridge, which will extend the road over I-485, allowing drivers to bypass congestion on Johnston Road. The Bissell Companies, which are partnering with the city, county and state on road improvements in Ballantyne, have completed much of the work on extending North Community House up to I-485, with the Lane Construction crews slated to build the bridge while they widen I-485.

Crews are expected to complete the project by December 2014.

What project comes next is still up in the air. The state could opt to mark the toll lanes next and put the electronics in place that would monitor vehicles using the lane. Drivers would need to buy a transponder to drive in the lane, otherwise cameras would capture their vehicle’s information and the driver would be issued a ticket for driving in the lane without a transponder.

After that, state transportation leaders need to figure out how to deal with a slightly less congested stretch of I-485, between Rea Road and U.S. 74. Rucho and others have discussed the need to widen I-485 all the way up to U.S. 74, likely using toll lanes to make the road three-lanes wide in each direction. But that plan was partly being discussed with the Monroe Bypass in mind. The bypass, another toll road, would alleviate traffic on U.S. 74 but has run into a number of roadblocks over environmental issues in the area and now may never be built. When discussed last year, state transportation officials said the toll lanes may eventually connect I-77 with the bypass and U.S. 74 to make moving around the region much easier.

All of this likely will be discussed at the breakfast club’s Dec. 1 meeting. Officials also will discuss construction timelines and what steps are being taken to reduce traffic delays while work is done. The meeting, is at 9 a.m. at the Ballantyne Hotel, 10000 Ballantyne Commons Pkwy. For more information, visit the club’s website at www.ballantynebreakfastclub.com.

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