Area will get one lane in next few years, may have to wait on getting more
by Mike Parks
Transportation officials laid out plans this weekend for the expansion of Interstate 485 with and without toll lanes.
What’s certain is that south Mecklenburg will get one lane in both directions of I-485 between Interstate 77 and Rea Road. Original plans called for the lane to end at Johnston Road instead of Rea. That work may start as soon as October and should be done at latest by 2016.
What is less certain is when, or if, toll lanes will ever be added along the Union County border.
The upcoming widening includes an auxiliary lane between Johnston Road and Pineville-Matthews Road on the inner loop. The lane will drop out after Pineville-Matthews Road, but should alleviate some of the merging issues for drivers between the two busy thoroughfares, according to North Carolina Department of Transportation engineer Louis Mitchell.
“We’ve heard your concerns,” Mitchell said Saturday, June 9, at a meeting with residents He added the lanes were “definitely going to be an improvement.”
But what type of improvement won’t be known until the lanes are complete. The population in south Mecklenburg and Union County has exploded since the highway first started carrying cars in the 1990s, and since then transportation officials have been struggling to keep up. The segment of highway around Ballantyne is one of the most congested in the country according to a national study, and as recently as last year state officials said adding a lane would only improve the stretch from an F grade in their books to a D. Residents on Saturday, while applauding the extra lane, worried it would just move the traffic jam a little further down the road.
The transportation department is looking at some “innovative designs” from firms on how to keep traffic flowing on I-485, Mitchell said, but didn’t elaborate on those designs. The state should assign the contract to a construction company in July.
One thing Mitchell said the state definitely isn’t doing right now is toll lanes, despite recent discussions by the transportation group on adding lanes from I-77 all the way to Independence Boulevard. At one point the widening contract might have included adding one toll lane in each direction between I-77 and, at the time, Johnston Road. That wasn’t on Mitchell’s radar Saturday, with him adding that the state doesn’t have approval right now to add those lanes.
But crews will leave space for them. When construction crews start work in October, Mitchell said they’ll make the new lane in each direction extra wide. That would mean the extra pavement could eventually be painted to mark off another lane, which likely would be a toll lane. Transportation officials eventually envision a toll lane from I-77 to Independence and the Monroe Bypass, if it’s built.
And while the transportation department has discussed the idea of those tolls eventually going away and the extra I-485 lane turning back into a general traffic lane once the road is paid for, that likely won’t be the case. Officials said Saturday the tolls would be used to control speed and traffic flow on I-485 and not just pay for the extra widening.
Cars using the lane would be monitored by equipment set up along the road, and drivers would have to buy a pass to use the lane. Rates would change on the lane depending on the amount of traffic on I-485 at the time. Those using the lane without a pass would have a photo taken of their license plate and a bill sent in the mail.
One resident asked what would stop people who don’t have license plates from using the lane for free, but transportation officials didn’t have an immediate answer. They say that’s not likely a very big issue.
Officials Saturday did not set a time line on when toll lanes may come to I-485.
What’s happening with I-485
The widening project, which will go to a contractor in July, will include much more than widening. The project includes:
• A lane in both directions from Interstate 77 to Johnston Road/U.S. 521, leaving extra space for a future lane
• An auxiliary lane on the inner loop between Johnston Road and Pineville-Matthews Road/N.C. 51
• The Johnston Road Flyover, to take cars going north on Johnston up and over traffic, depositing them on the I-485 inner loop ramp
• Possibly the North Community House Bridge over I-485, which will allow drivers to bypass traffic on Johnston Road or access the I-485 inner loop ramp from the north