Capping I-277? Not high on city’s to-do list

The idea to put a roof on Interstate 277 tends to be what grabs people’s attention, but that project is – if not back-burnered – far down on the Charlotte City Council’s to-do list. Instead, the city’s transportation planners will recommend reconfiguring three of the uptown freeway’s interchanges.

To be sure, the City Council, on a motion by at-large member David Howard, voted to send the freeway cap idea to its Economic Development committee. But no timetable was attached.

 The Charlotte Department of Transportation will push proposals to reconfigure three areas along the uptown freeway – a loop created by the Brookshire Freeway, the Belk Expressway and the segment of Interstate 77 between the two.

Whether those projects are included in the state’s 2040 (yes, you read that date right) Long-Range Transportation Plan will depend on how they rate compared with other proposed projects when the ideas go before the regional transportation planning group known as MUMPO (Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization.) That 2040 plan update is due by 2014.

Related articles:

Charlotte to consider upgrades to I-277

Planners offer ideas for uptown freeway loop

Changes ahead for uptown freeway

Related Naked City Blog articles:

Time to neuter that noose around uptown Charlotte?

Why Charlotte needs that ‘noose’ study

What another city did

Read about a 5-acre park atop a Dallas freeway

CDOT planner Vivian Coleman briefed the council Monday night on results from CDOT’s study of the uptown freeway.  The oldest part of the loop, the Brookshire Freeway (the loop segment along the north end of uptown that links Independence Boulevard to I-77 and that runs between 11th and 12st streets) is the oldest, built in the 1960s. So it was likely conceptualized in the 1950s. It hasn’t been updated since.

 “It does not function as intended,” Coleman said, in something of an understatement. Daily traffic counts on I-77 between the Belk and Brookshire freeways (126,000 to 169,000) are often higher than the total population of Charlotte when the highways were envisioned in the 1950s. (Charlotte’s 1950 population was 134,000.)

Coleman said the three proposals CDOT will recommend to the NCDOT are: Reconfigure the I-77/Belk Freeway interchange, which has the highest number of wrecks; reconfigure the southern part of the Belk Freeway, including the Third-Fourth street interchange; rework interchanges along I-77 between the Belk and the Brookshire interchanges. 

The freeway loop study was ordered because: A) The city’s adopted 2020 Center City Vision Plan urged such a study, and B) The Federal Highway Administration requires a comprehensive study before making any additional freeway modifications.

Please, note the irony involved. The 2020 Center City Plan was pushing for a more pedestrian-friendly uptown, with better connections to surrounding neighborhoods.  There was talk of whether some part of the freeway might be turned into a high-volume boulevard, at street level, with sidewalks and general city-type development.  This is not a crackpot idea; other U.S. cities are tearing down freeways and creating boulevards. See: “Freeway removal goes mainstream” and “Freeways without futures.

(For a deeper understanding of how a freeway hurts surrounding areas and acts as a barrier to economic regeneration, see “The curse of border vacuums,” Chapter 14 in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.)

Another recommendation in the 2020 Plan was to – again – consider capping the I-277 section where it runs below grade, between Church and Caldwell streets.  That idea had also been suggested in the 2010 uptown vision plan.

CDOT’s uptown loop study seems to have taken that idea off the table. And CDOT is not pushing for the freeway cap, either.   Coleman said transportation planners concluded that the cap-the-freeway idea was not really a transportation issue, since it wouldn’t really affect vehicle mobility along the freeway. “It’s an economic development opportunity, not a transportation opportunity,” she said.

But is that too narrow a definition of “transportation opportunity”? A cap park would make it much easier to walk or bicycle into uptown from South End. Currently there are some not-so-comfortable sidewalks on South Church, Tryon and College streets. Even the pedestrian track beside the light rail ends at Morehead Street. Bicycling is, if anything, even more fraught with scary traffic. Being able to get to uptown through a park would be an immense improvement. 

Whether the improvement would be worth the expense, of course, is a completely different question. A 2008 city cost estimate is $330 million for the project.

(Read more, and download the PowerPoint presentation to City Council here.)