Editor’s note: Kurt Naas delivered these remarks in longer form to the Cornelius Board of Commissioners on Monday, Feb. 21.
I have the misfortune of commuting to downtown via Interstate 77, where sometimes it takes 20 minutes to travel from exit 28 to exit 25. If I do my arithmetic right, that’s an average of nine miles an hour.
Simply adding a third lane up to Catawba Avenue would end this gridlock. It would require no right-of-way purchase, no bridge reconstruction, no blasting. I’ve been so frustrated this hasn’t happened that I’ve undertaken a self-study to understand why we can’t get this done.
I’ve concluded that I-77 through North Mecklenburg, carrying over 80,000 vehicles per day, is the most congested four-lane road in the state of North Carolina.
If a quarter of those motorists travel during rush hour, a third general purpose lane could save 20,000 commuters 20 minutes a day. Assuming the average vehicle idles at two gallons an hour, we would save 3.6 million gallons of gas every year. That translates into 37,000 tons of carbon dioxide eliminated.
In light of those gains, the average traffic-weary commuter would think adding a lane would be high on the priority list of our transportation planners. The average traffic-weary commuter would also be wrong.
Between the Equity Formula, regional planning organizations like the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, and local transportation professionals – more on them in a moment – road construction has become a means for social engineering.
For instance, the Equity Formula, with its emphasis on rural development, gave us U.S. 421 from Boone to Wilkesboro. It cuts through miles of rock and must have cost a fortune. I drove it a couple weeks ago, and the only things on it were me and the turkey vultures.
And, until just recently, plans were moving ahead for a $750 million bridge refurbishment on the Outer Banks. The Outer Banks? Meanwhile, I sit on I-77 with 2023,000 of my closest friends.
We have forgotten that roads are supposed to carry cars. Clearly, the prioritization process is broken.
So as a bandage to I-77 gridlock, High Occupancy Toll lanes recently were proposed.
There are many troubling questions about this proposition:
• How would vehicles in the HOT lanes navigate over to exits 23, 25 and 28?
• What kind of burden would this impose on our court system?
• And why should the citizens of Lake Norman be subject to double taxation?
I asked that last question to the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce and Speaker of the N.C. House Thom Tillis. The consistent answer: There’s no money otherwise. In light of the misplaced priorities, it’s easy to understand why.
Well, as I read in The Herald this weekend, that has now changed.
Apparently stalled projects in other parts of the state have freed up enough funds to build four lanes all the way to Catawba. Mr. Barry Moose, district engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, recently proposed this. You would think transportation planners would be leaping for joy at the news.
But Mr. Bill Coxe, transportation planner for Huntersville, still wants to build the toll lane. He is concerned that additional lanes quickly will become congested and points to I-77 from downtown Charlotte to South Carolina as an example.
Using that logic, I-77 should never have been built in the first place. Nor should we move forward with the diverging diamond interchange at Exit 28.
Well, I am tired of our roads – and my gas bill and my tax dollars – being used to further someone’s idea of a transportation utopia. This is not about social engineering. It’s about proper stewardship of taxpayer funds.
And for $30 million, we are not going to get a bigger bang for the taxpayer buck than widening I-77. Remember the tons of carbon dioxide and millions of gallons of gas?
Right now there is a window of opportunity to do what should have been done years ago.
So I’m asking the board to pass a resolution supporting construction of four general purpose lanes on I-77.
Commissioners, rarely are you presented with such a major opportunity positively impact your fellow citizens. Let’s go after the funding and get those general purpose lanes built.
– Kurt Naas, Cornelius
Kurt Naas serves on the Transportation Advisory Board of Cornelius. He is forming a grassroots organization to widen I-77. E-mail him at widenI77@hotmail.com.