CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte City Council voted Monday to authorize the restoration and reopening of the bus lanes on Independence Boulevard (U.S. 74)
The proposed restoration would cost $750,000 and would be completed by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, according to the resolution set forth by the City of Charlotte.
"More reliable travel time on transit is going to be critically important for folks that are coming back into the office and on roads that will be increasingly busy," Larken Egleston, who representative Charlotte's District 1 on the council, said ahead of Monday's meeting.
When operating, the lanes provide Charlotte Area Transit System buses and emergency vehicles with an exclusive lane that runs about five miles. The lane is meant to provide an incentive to mass transit riders and provide quicker access to emergencies.
One lane in each direction runs the approximate distance between Wallace Lane and the Hawthorne Street overpass. A special ramp also provides access to Albemarle Road.
"I think for them to sit there unused would be a shame and we don't want to let that happen," Egleston said.
The lanes were closed in 2017 when work began to replace the Hawthrone Street overpass to accommodate the gold line streetcar. The original plan called for reopening the Independence Boulevard lanes as toll lanes, similar to those on Interstate 77 and the ones being constructed on Interstate 485.
The start of the toll lane conversion was considered beginning after the completion of the Hawthrone Street bridge, which was supposed to be completed in March of 2019. Significant construction delays prevented the Hawthrone Street bridge, and its new streetcar tracks, from fully opening until December of 2020.
The bus lane restoration will restore these lanes to their previous operation as a busway, which at the time of its 2017 closure serviced express bus routes 40X, 46X, 52X, 64X, 65X, and 74X.
Before the lanes can be reopened, the entrance and exit of the busway near the Hawthorne Lane Bridge need to be reconfigured since a support beam from the new bridge now stands in the busway lanes.
"Tonight is simply about making sure we're utilizing an asset that's already there that we haven't been able to lately but I think we can again with a little bit of an investment," Egleston explained.
Funding for the restoration of the bus lanes is expected to come from the CATS Capital Investment Plan. Work is expected to be completed by the end of the year, according to the resolution.
The City of Charlotte has proposed the bus lane restoration in the "interim" because "NCDOT funding shortfalls have significantly delayed the busway conversion to a toll facility," according to the proposal.
WCNC Charlotte reached out to the NCDOT to inquiry about the city's mention of funding shortfalls.
"NCDOT is developing a project to widen U.S. 74 from I-277 to west of Idlewild Road, including two-way express lanes in the median," NCDOT said in a released statement to WCNC Charlotte. "We’re seeing cost increases impacting materials, labor and right of way acquisition, similar to rising costs impacting nearly every industry. This is forcing us to take another look at our 10-year planning document, or Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan and this project’s schedule. Meanwhile, the local NCDOT highway division is working with CATS to implement this change to reinstate bus service in the area."
A webpage maintained by the NCDOT shows the conversion to toll lanes would cost approximately $96 million. It shows work not beginning until at least 2024.
"North Carolina is growing, but transportation revenues are not keeping pace," that webpage explains. "This presents a special set of challenges for our state. NCDOT is seeking innovative ways to improve our existing roadway network, grow the state's economy and enhance the quality of life. The use of express lanes is one tool for achieving those goals."
In the toll lane project proposal, no additional lanes would be built. That proposal would keep one lane in each direction.