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Fourth I-485 lane in south Charlotte to go unused for 5 years

CHARLOTTE — There is enough room for another lane on a busy section of Interstate 485 in south Charlotte, but the North Carolina Department of Transportation has no plans to put traffic on it for at least five years.

The recent $82 million widening of 9 miles of I-485 from Interstate 77 to Rea Road has enough asphalt for four lanes instead of the current three lanes.

But DOT officials told The Charlotte Observer that their long-term plans are to make the fourth lane a toll lane, and highways built with federal money can’t take regular lanes and turn them into toll lanes.

Instead, it is likely that orange barrels will remain in the extra lane until a second widening project is done to add lanes on I-485 from Rea Road to U.S. 74. Once that project is finished, the fourth lane will be opened on I-485 as an express toll lane from I-77 to U.S. 74.

One other option for the extra asphalt would be to make the fourth lane into a carpool lane, then tolling it later, something allowed under federal rules. North Carolina currently is doing something similar on I-77 north of Charlotte. But DOT spokesman Warren Cooksey said there would have to be public meetings and possibly approval of the proposal from the federal government.

“Then we are talking about it being an HOV lane for a year or two. I’m not sure it’s worth it,” Cooksey said.

The first I-485 widening project helped unclog one of the Charlotte area’s worst traffic backups. But even the new three lanes sometime get backed up at rush hour.

“The DOT knows they can’t make a free lane a toll lane later, so they will leave it unstriped, to somehow protect it,” said David Hartgen, a transportation consultant and former UNC Charlotte professor. “Citizens will see wasted pavement, or vacant pavement, and ask, ‘Why are we waiting later when we need the capacity now?’ ”

But part of the problem could be the current design of the road. Drivers heading east on I-485 have the highway narrow from three lanes to two at Rea Road. A fourth lane could cause even more backups at that point, officials said.

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