Thursday’s transportation update meeting drew perhaps 200 people to Newell Presbyterian Church to hear the latest details regarding $1.5 billion in road, rail and light-rail facilities under construction now or soon in University City.
Staff gave quick summaries and benefits for several projects, focusing on light rail, related improvements to the North Tryon corridor, and the high-speed rail line beside Old Concord Road. They also responded to numerous questions about dealing with the construction and invited people to stay afterward and get more detailed answers to specific questions.
“We want to emphasize that a lot of good things are about to happen in your neighborhoods,” said city engineer Jim Keenan, “but it is going to be painful, and we recognize that.”
The turnout pleased and surprised District 4 City Councilman Greg Phipps. Cars overflowed the church parking lots and spilled across the lawn. Phipps told the audience that Thursday’s meeting was a follow-up to one he had held with nearby residents last April. “Little did I know we’d have the turnout we have tonight,” he said.
The turnout was likely helped along by a post card about the meeting that the city sent in July to several neighborhoods along Old Concord Road – and by the removal this spring of trees along Old Concord Road to make room for the second set of train tracks.
Several Autumnwood residents came to learn about city plans to realign Rocky River Road West at North Tryon Street and about the impact to the road from new student housing and a replacement for Newell Elementary School, both under construction near North Tryon Street. School Board at-large member Erika Ellis-Stewart and NC State Senator-elect Dr. Joyce Waddell also attended.
City, state staffs working to build communication
A second major theme of the evening was the need for everyone to communicate. Phipps said he has heard concerns that local and state agencies may not share important information, such as project start and finish dates. “We are talking to each other and making a coordinated effort to minimize traffic disruptions while delivering projects on schedule,” he told the audience.
Matt Magnasco, a city transportation project manager, directed people to a new and evolving website with an interactive map of rail and associated road projects in northeast Mecklenburg County. The map shows active projects by year. bit.ly/1kPdK99
Staff also need to know how to best communicate with you, Keenan said. He encouraged everyone to fill out a brief communications survey before leaving.
Project updates and issues
Here is a summary of main projects covered at the meeting; questions from the audience; and staff responses.
I-485 Outer Belt, I-85 widening in Cabarrus, new I-85/I-485 interchange
The I-85 widening is finished. I-485 and the new interchange will open to traffic in December, allowing the interstate and finished outer belt to provide some traffic relief for other projects, said Scott Cole, NC DOT deputy division engineer for the 5-county region including Mecklenburg.
• 485 MADD DASH – NC DOT is also helping put on a small celebration, the 459 MADD Dash 5K and 10K fun run and fun bike ride along the roadway on Nov. 2. See related story » LINK
Double Track Project on the NC Railroad Main Line
This is part of a much bigger project to construct high-speed rail lines between Washington and Atlanta. The 92-mile Piedmont Improvement program is upgrading the NC Railroad Main Line east of Charlotte and making other improvements to allow more and faster trains that operate on consistent schedules. Similar improvements near the Rowan-Davidson county line opened in July. Passenger trains will be able to increase their speeds from 45 to 65 mph. The full project should be complete in December 2017.
Timetable: Spring 2014-December 2016
- Add 2nd set of tracks along 12 miles of the rail corridor from about Orr road to eastern Cabarrus County.
- Realign some curves to allow higher safe train speeds.
- Extend Grier Road to Old Concord Road via a new bridge over new train tracks. Bridge and new roadway will have bike and pedestrian lanes.
- Build a new 2-track train bridge to go over the future extension of Mallard Creek Church Road southeast of University City Boulevard.
- Improve crossings at Back Creek Church Road, McLean Road and Orr Road.
- Close crossing at Newell-Hickory Grove Road after Grier Road bridge opens.
- Improve Old Concord Road near the new Grier Road intersection including addition of a wide bike-pedestrian path set back from the new highway on the road’s west side.
- Track installation will begin after the roadbed project is finished in December 2016.
- How will the closing of Old Concord Road next year for nine months affect nearby residents? – The road will be closed to through traffic around the Grier Road construction site for about 9 months starting spring 2015. This time is needed to elevate Old Concord Road several feet to meet the level of the new bridge. Jahmal Pullen, project development engineer with NC DOT rail division, said that local traffic will be maintained to all nearby properties and streets.
- Won’t the loss of trees beside Old Concord Road increase noise nearby? Pullen said that studies have shown that these tree buffers don’t reduce train noise. On the other hand, residents will have far less train-horn noise once the state closes the Newell-Hickory Grove Road crossing, since approaching trains will no longer need to blow their horns repeatedly, as they do now. That closing will happen once the Grier Road bridge becomes opens to traffic.
- Should the state put up fences and plants to keep people and animals off the track? Pullen said that the state does not do this because total barriers are difficult to build. The result is having animals slip through anyway and get trapped on the wrong side.
- Project overview – http://www.ncdot.gov/projects/pip/
- Project video (posted February 2014) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frSbuHz84gg
Blue Line Extension
Construction is under way on the transit line from the current light-rail line’s final station downtown to the UNC Charlotte campus. The line will run down the middle of North Tryon Street between Old Concord road and campus. Service will begin in early 2017, with three-car trains covering the 9.2 miles in 22 minutes. University City will have three stations along North Tryon Street – near University City Boulevard, McCullough Drive and Clay Boulevard, along with parking decks at the University City Boulevard and Clay Boulevard stations.
- Crews are clearing land, putting up retaining walls and relocating utility lines along North Tryon Street. Traffic lanes will be moved outward. This is necessary to make the center median wide enough to handle two sets of tracks.
- Work has started on the UNC Charlotte campus, too. Crews have cleared a path from Tryon Street down to Toby Creek, where work started recently on a bridge over the creek.
- Why did the trees along North Tryon Street get cut down? Jim Keenan said that this is necessary to move the traffic lanes outward. The trees will be replaced where possible with urban street trees as part of the city’s commitment to enlarge the tree canopy to 50% by 2050. Also, all city streets are required to get street trees when they are built or widened.
- Where can you turn left once the tracks are installed? At intersections with traffic signals, Jim said.
Rocky River Road relocation project
As with the original Blue Line, the city will ask voters to approve several bond issues to help pay for transit-related improvements along the light-rail line. These improvements include upgrading nearby streets and providing more bike and pedestrian lanes. One of those projects involves improving the capacity and safety of Rocky River Road West near North Tryon Street. A large college-focused housing complex is under construction along North Tryon Street and Rocky River Road West, with a secondary entrance on Rocky River Road West. Next to that, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is building a replacement for Newell Elementary School. The road improvements will be partly funded by contributions from CMS and the apartments developer.
Time – Not set. Depends on voters approving bonds.
Improvement area – North Tryon Street to Batavia Lane and hopefully to Toby Creek.
- Straighten some curves, flatten the sometimes steep grade and add left-turn lanes into school and student apartments, and add bike lanes, sidewalks, planting strips, street trees and street lights.
- Keenan said the city hopes to fund improvements to Toby Creek, where the county will start next year on an extension of Toby Creek Greenway.
- What is the city doing to prevent traffic backups at the school when parents come to pick up their children and to prevent backups elsewhere on Rocky River Road? Keenan said that the new school is designed to handle those cars on school property. Sen.-elect Waddell and School Board member Ellis-Stewart said that CMS transportation staff should be part of these discussions.
- Should this be a four-lane road? Keenan said that four lanes will not be needed. Straightening the road and adding left-turn lanes will allow Rocky River Road West to handle much more traffic without additional widening.
- Why not redo Rocky River Road West all the way to Old Concord Road? – Keenan said that city staff must keep within their budgets, which are based on city tax revenues. The light-rail project and related bond packages will provide money only for widening Rocky River Road West to Batavia Lane.