Cover Story: Nightmare Congestion

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Now that the I-485 loop will finally be closed, attention now turns to the outerbelt's most pressing problem.  That's widening I-485 in south Charlotte.

At Pineville, the freeway goes from three lanes to two.  And if you've ever tried to drive this stretch during rush hour, you know it's a nightmare.

121,000 cars and trucks travel that stretch of road every day.  And it won't be widened for another five years.

As a temporary fix, the state was considering using the shoulders as travel lanes.  Remember that plan? It just seemed to vanish.

Using the shoulders as a travel lane first came up at a community breakfast meeting Ray Eschert organized more than two years ago.

Since then the project like traffic on the southern leg of I-485 has come to a standstill.

"It's a perfect alternative to get something done in the short term until we can get full relief out here.. and why they're dragging their feet I don't know," says Eschert.

But you can guess the reason why.

North Carolina DOT needs about $300,000 to do analysis work on the project.  The state has to run complicated models showing how using the shoulders would work before it can win federal approval.

Kevin Lacy, the DOT's state traffic engineer and the man tasked with seeing it happen, says the project can't even get out of the gate until the analysis work is done.

"No one's been more anxious than me," he told us.

Using shoulders as travel lanes - adding three lanes of traffic where there's currently just two is seen as temporary fix.

The state estimates converting  would cost about $10 million.  The shoulders from South Boulevard to Highway 521 - Johnston Road would only be used during rush hour.

"It is not going to be the cure all for any of our issues. What is will simply do is add additional capacity to get the congested areas to clear a little bit quicker," says Lacy.

With Thursday's contract signing - a signal that work on the northeast section of I-485 will begin soon.. fixing the southern section which was built in the 80s woefully too small will get the attention now.

Ray Eschert hopes money saved building the northeast section can be diverted here.

He said, "485 is a traffic stop for most of the morning and most of the afternoon. And the growth continues to accelerate here.. so it's just not happening. It needs to be done."

Doing it the right way adding the extra lanes in the median.. seen as a permanent fix is expected to cost upwards of $75 million.

Using the shoulders is a cheaper and quicker alternative to alleviate congestion.

It's not the NC DOT's most preferred plan.  It would rather add an extra lane in each direction in the median.  But the earliest that could happen is 2015.

Other areas of the state are also looking into using the shoulders for traffic.  But all that depends on what happens here in Mecklenburg County.

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