If you travel Charlotte’s Interstate 277 uptown freeway loop, you probably know the blood-curdling experience of merging across multiple lanes of traffic within what feels like a few hundred yards. And then immediately you have to merge again and, sometimes, yet again — or else hurtle past your desired exit.
It can be terrifying and can make rush-hour backups on regular city streets look alluring by comparison.
Those weird on- and off-ramps and the vast spaghetti-bowl junction at U.S. 74 may be changing in coming years. Charlotte’s Department of Transportation (CDOT) is studying the 6.5-mile loop of freeways I-277 and I-77 that encircle uptown. They’re looking at interchanges, ramps and the possible need for reconfigurations in some places.
No, CDOT officials say, they don’t have anything close to a proposal for changes yet. What they have, for now, are a little more than 24 ideas to consider. They’re asking for public reaction and opinions at a drop-in workshop next week. But don’t expect speedy changes; all this is to determine projects to include in a 2040 transportation plan.
CDOT planners Norm Steinman and Vivian Coleman said Wednesday they don’t yet have the final list of suggestions to be discussed at Tuesday’s workshop, but Steinman said some ramps probably will be nominated for removal, since short ramps and traffic weaving are problems along the loop.
There’s been discussion for more than a decade — but no funding or official studies — of the possibility of putting a cap atop some part of the section of the Belk expressway that’s below grade, roughly from South Church Street to South Caldwell Street. Creating space atop the freeway could help connections to SouthEnd and provide possibilities for either development or, as envisioned a decade ago in the 2010 Vision Plan for uptown, a park.
Steinman said the study of the freeway loop didn’t look at that possibility because such a roof on the highway wouldn’t affect the highway’s ability to carry motor vehicle traffic. He views the idea as an economic development tool rather than a transportation tool. But none of the two dozen ideas under discussion would prevent a freeway cap project, he said.
San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, before removal. Credit: Todd Lapin on Flickr
One big issue with the loop, Steinman said, is that much of it was designed as long as 60 years ago. The Brookshire Freeway between Independence Boulevard and I-77 opened in 1972. The segment of the Belk expressway between Kenilworth Avenue and the Brookshire Freeway opened in 1981. The segment between Kenilworth and I-77 opened in 1988. And clearly the highway was envisioned decades earlier. I-85, I-77 and the uptown loop freeway are shown, looking almost exactly as built, on a 1960 master highway transportation plan for the city from what was then called Wilbur Smith and Associates.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that the interchanges from I-77 to the Belk and from I-77 to the Brookshire were not designed to modern urban standards,” Steinman said. Standards today are for freeway interchanges to be a mile or more apart. “That’s not the situation here,” he said. “Sometimes there’s less than a half a mile. That’s where there are really problems.”
He said the study has compared the accident rates for different segments of Charlotte’s uptown loop to comparable accident rates for other urban freeways in North Carolina. “Several segments exceed the statewide average,” he said. Which ones? “Almost all of them.”
In addition to the freeway cap idea, some discussion took place during the process for the 2020 Center City Vision Plan of whether parts of the loop should be converted into something more like boulevards — streets that can carry high traffic volumes but that are designed like city streets, not freeways. Think of the Champs Elysees or even Queens Road West, as opposed to I-77.
Although freeway segments in several U.S. cities have been removed, often with little effect on congestion but resulting in notable neighborhood revitalization, Steinman said that concept isn’t an idea on the table now. He said one commonly used example of freeway demolition — San Francisco’s Embarcadero — is not comparable to Charlotte’s uptown freeway, which is a key connector between other freeways.
The city has contracted with consultants RS&H for the study. It’s funded with money from the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization and the N.C. Department of Transportation. Not all two dozen early suggestions will be included in the final recommendations, Steinman and Coleman said. In coming weeks officials and consultants will narrow the choices for which projects will be proposed for inclusion in MUMPO’s 2040 long-range transportation plan.