Shared from the 5/17/2018 Gaston Gazette eEdition

Transit needs won’t end with I-85, US 74 projects

River-crossing project at top of MPO’s wish list

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Vehicles cross the U.S. 74 bridge over the Catawba River in this December 2017 file photo.

[MIKE HENSDILL/THE GASTON GAZETTE]

The much-anticipated widening of Interstate 85 through Gaston County is happening, but transportation officials are concerned it won’t be enough to fully alleviate congestion for commuters traveling in and out of Charlotte.

“I hate to say that even with the widening of 85, as soon as that project is complete, it’s going to be at or over capacity,” Randi Gates, administrator of the Gaston-Cleveland-Lincoln Metropolitan Planning Organization, said during last week’s Gaston County commission meeting. “We’ll still need something else.”

The issue — as anyone who has been stuck on I-85 when traffic slows to a crawl can attest — is the sheer mass of commuters in one of the fastest growing regions of the United States. Already in the works is a three-phase project widening I-85 from the Catawba River to the South Carolina border. As it stands right now in draft form, the plan is to widen the highway to eight lanes between Exit 10 (U.S. 74) and Exit 17 (U.S. 321) in Gaston and to widen the highway to six lanes from 321 to the South Carolina. Projections are for right-of-way acquisitions to begin in 2024 and construction to begin in 2025.

“In the process right now, (the N.C. Department of Transportation) is starting to look at some preliminary interchange concepts,” Gates said. “There is not enough room under the bridges to widen the road, so they are looking at upgrading interchanges and potentially relocating bridges — and this is all bridges: roadway bridges and railroad bridges that cross

85. They’re going to be screened and analyzed based on property impacts, stream and wetland, historic resources impact, cost schedule and design complexity as well as traffic flow.”

Public comment opportunities are expected this summer.

Construction alone could take about five years — and if things keep going as they are now, residential growth won’t slow down during that time.

“I firmly believe that when I-85 is complete, it will be where it needed to be 20 years ago, so we’ll still have some traffic problems on I-85 even after the widening,” state Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, said earlier this year during a meeting with county leaders. “That will continue to grow because we sit right next to Charlotte.”

There’s also a project in the works to widen the U.S. 74 bridge over the Catawba River, the ongoing U.S. 74 Shelby bypass project and a widening effort soon to begin on Dallas-Cherryville Highway.

All that might ease congestion some in the long run, but there’s a substantial hurdle when it comes to the Gaston-Mecklenburg commute: the Catawba River.

A river-crossing project is at the top of the MPO’s wish list for state projects. Right now, there are three crossings in Gaston: N.C. 16, N.C. 27, I-85 and U.S.

74. The latter two are the most heavily used, and none of the crossings are more than four miles apart from the next. But south of 74, there’s nothing until S.C. 49 across the state line.

“There’s a 10-mile gap in crossings, and we’re looking to fill that gap,” Gates said. “The Catawba crossings project would provide traffic-congestion relief, economic growth for Gaston County and beyond, and an additional connection to I-485 and the airport in Charlotte and the new River District that is underway.”

The River District is a 1,400-acre development planned west of the airport.

Ideally, Gates said, a connector would run from N.C. 279 in Gaston to Interstate 485 in Mecklenburg. She said she was hopeful that the state and MPO could work out a way to avoid a route that would conflict with construction of a new runway at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

There are also some cross-county transit options.

With replacement of the 74 bridge over the Catawba slated to begin in 2022, planners are seeing opportunity.

“We’re looking at two separate three-lane bridges that would be replaced,” Gates said. “One thing that we are following and is a great opportunity is the option through bridge design for any type of future rapid transit.”

Similarly, Charlotte Area Transit System is working on a plan for its LYNX West corridor, with a long-term goal being a light rail connecting the airport to a future line off Independence Boulevard on the city’s east side. But Gaston’s border is only a few miles from the airport, transit officials here are hopeful any potential commuter line might keep moving west. In fact, she said, about 70 percent of respondents for a CATS public input survey on the project were people from Gaston and Cleveland counties.

Gates said it’s possible that bridge over 74 could play a role in luring the project westward.

“Now is the time to think through the design options that will be needed,” she said. “We don’t know if it’s going to be bus or rapid transit or if it’s going to be light rail. We don’t know how it’s going to be paid for, but if we don’t do what we need to do now to make room on the bridge for a future route, we’ll lose that opportunity. We are working on that diligently.”

You can reach Dashiell

Coleman at 704-869-1819 or on Twitter @

DashiellColeman

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