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Transit Time is a weekly newsletter for Charlotte people who leave the house. Cars, buses, light rail, bikes, scooters ... if you use it to get around the city, you can read news and analysis about it here. Transit Time is produced in partnership by WFAE and The Charlotte Ledger. Subscribe here.

Do we need a new bridge across the Catawba River?

Bridge rendering
Catawba Crossings
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Feasibility Study
Gaston County officials are enthusiastic about a new bridge across the Catawba River. But funding is uncertain, and it is at least 20 years away. A recent study examined the effect of the bridge and a 6.5-mile road that would start near Charlotte’s airport.

If you’re in Mecklenburg County and want to head west — to Gastonia or Shelby, or to the mountains — you have limited options. The Catawba River is in your way.

There are just four bridges connecting Mecklenburg and Gaston counties, and none along a 10-mile stretch between Wilkinson Boulevard (U.S. 74) and the Buster Boyd Bridge at the Mecklenburg/South Carolina line.

Now, officials in Gaston County are hoping to add another bridge to the list, with a 6.5-mile road. It would link Charlotte’s airport and I-485 in Mecklenburg to southeastern Gaston County.

Gaston officials are pitching it as a chance to improve transportation options, relieve traffic on Wilkinson Boulevard and I-85 and improve travel times for drivers in Mecklenburg, Gaston and York counties. But the idea is also dusting off concerns of environmentalists, who say it’s an unneeded road that bears a striking resemblance to the more ambitious 22-mile “Garden Parkway” toll road plan that was abandoned in 2015.

At the moment, there’s no money for the road, dubbed the “Catawba Crossings” project. In a best case scenario, it would take another 20 years or so. Planners recently completed a feasibility study that could help make the case for state funding. It put the cost at $319 million. As far as road projects go, that’s expensive, but less expensive than, say, making planned improvements to I-277 or widening I-77 south of uptown to the South Carolina line.

Map of roads and bridge
Catawba Crossings
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Feasibility Study
The 6.5-mile route would run between South New Hope Road in Gaston County, north of the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, and Steele Creek Road by Charlotte’s airport.

Viewed as ‘a big help’: In Belmont, drivers from York Country cut through downtown to get to U.S. 74 or I-85 to the north, because they have few other options to get to Charlotte, said Mayor Charlie Martin.

“It would help with the traffic. It would help a lot,” he said. “We have a lot of development coming. … If we don’t get something done — people complain about the traffic all the time. This should be a big help.”

Asked if people would support another bridge just a few years after public opposition helped kill a similar plan, Martin said: “They’ll support it now. We have to have a bridge across that river. Got to.”

The idea for another road across the Catawba raises a familiar question: Do new roads alleviate traffic congestion by providing more options for motorists? Or do they make traffic worse by encouraging more development, which leads to more cars on the roads — a concept known in planning circles as “induced demand”?

The recent study of the Catawba Crossings proposal concluded that the new road would reduce the number of cars on U.S. 74 by 20%, on Steele Creek Road (N.C. 160) and York Road (N.C. 49) by 5%-10% and on I-85 by 1%-3%, compared with not building the road. The road would not have a toll.

The areas in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties that would be linked have experienced less development than other parts of the region that are closer to major highways and thoroughfares. Yes, there are developments south of Belmont, and some on the way west of Charlotte’s airport and in Steele Creek. But the population densities in those areas are less than in places with better road connections.

On the Mecklenburg side, the proposed four-lane road would pass through what’s being called the River District, a 1,400-acre master planned development by Crescent Communities, and include a new interchange on I-485. Crescent says it has worked with planners to safeguard land needed for the road, should it materialize.

Chase Kerley, a managing director with Crescent who works on the River District plan, said in a statement to Transit Time: “If thoughtfully planned, we believe that the Catawba Crossing is an incredible opportunity to bridge Mecklenburg and Gaston County from not only economy, employment, and entertainment but also in a way that brings our greater communities closer towards a connection to the beauty and stewardship of the Catawba River.”

Planners have also talked with officials at Charlotte’s airport for a possible future tie-in to its intermodal hub, where shipping containers can be transferred between rail and trucks.

Room for bikers, joggers: Another part of the argument in favor of the road is that it won’t be just a road — it could include bike and pedestrian paths and adjacent recreation areas.

“It’s not just about cars and trucks and vehicles,” said Pat Mumford, a former Charlotte City Council member who heads the Gaston Business Association. “This bridge would accommodate cyclists and pedestrians. It’s being very intentional about a multimodal crossing over the river.”

Public reaction: For months, planners and consultants conducted public feedback sessions, surveys and stakeholder interviews. The study includes 509 written public comments reflecting a full range of opinions, which is what you get when you ask what people think. Responses included:

  • “an extremely needed project”
  • “please plan for enough lanes as there is booming growth”
  • “should be very limited number of intersections”
  • “um no”
  • “what about the homes and wildlife”
  • “get those ***** bicycles off the road”

In an 8-page letter submitted to planners, the Southern Environmental Law Center said the project would have “serious environmental consequences” and “lacks any clear purpose or need.” The letter said construction of the new road would “fuel sprawling car-dependent development outward from Charlotte,” which would result in worse air quality from increased driving.

Most of the enthusiasm for the new road seems to be coming from the Gaston County side. Leading the effort is the Gaston-Cleveland-Lincoln Metropolitan Planning Organization (GCLMPO), a collection of local governments and other officials. It commissioned the study, put together a website with a promotional video and continues to circulate information.

Randi Gates, administrator with the GCLMPO, says the hope is that with the feasibility study concluded, the state would include the project in its next 10-year funding plan. If that happens, it would likely be toward the end of that plan, around 2035, when money would start to come available for design and land acquisition. The best-case timeline would be for completion in the 2040s. But road funding is tight, and there are a lot of needs — so it’s uncertain if the project could win state approval for funding.

On the Mecklenburg side, transportation planners have been involved in the discussions on the Catawba Crossings idea. But it didn’t make it into the 2050 Metropolitan Transportation Plan’s list of top priorities, which identified 156 road projects in Mecklenburg, Union and Iredell counties. Local officials had to choose and were limited by costs, said Bob Cook, director of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization.

Even if the project takes decades, there are some changes afoot in other Gaston-Mecklenburg corridors:

  • The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to widen I-85 in Gaston County to eight lanes between Mount Holly and U.S. 321 in Gastonia.
  • NCDOT also has plans to widen the Wilkinson Boulevard bridge across the Catawba from four lanes to six and add paths for cyclists and pedestrians. The existing bridge was built in 1933 and is known as the Sloans Ferry Bridge, after the ferry service it replaced. Work is expected to start next year.
  • Wilkinson is also a proposed light rail route for the Lynx Silver Line, which could cross the river and go into Belmont — part of a 29-mile line that would go to uptown and to Matthews and perhaps Union County. Funding for that project is uncertain, too.
BridgePostcard.jpg
The Sloans Ferry Bridge is a section of Wilkinson Boulevard (U.S. 74) that connects Mecklenburg and Gaston counties. It is scheduled to be replaced starting in 2023. Will it have a cousin to the south?

Tony Mecia is executive editor of The Charlotte Ledger. Reach him at tony@cltledger.com.