Update 9:23 pm
By DAVID BORAKS
Our photographer was out taking a picture Monday of traffic backed up on West Catawba Avenue when an 18-wheeler inched past in a long line of traffic. “Hope you get a good picture of this mess,” he yelled out the window.
Since contractors for the NC Department of Transportation reconfigured the overpass at I-77 Exit 28 on June 28-29, Catawba Avenue has been restricted to one lane in each direction. It’s expected to remain that way for the rest of the summer and beyond, as work continues on the $5.4 million project.
Even before the new crossover pattern was installed, traffic leaving downtown in the westbound lanes of Catawba Avenue typically was backed up as far as the Cornelius library branch at lunch time and other busy periods. Backups in the eastbound direction have never been as bad as they are now.
With traffic now down to one lane both ways on the overpass, many drivers find themselves caught in the wrong lane as they get onto the bridge. Some are just confused about the new traffic pattern, others appear to be trying to get around the long line of traffic by sneaking into the single lane across the bridge at the last possible minute.
Over the past week, the DOT has tried to help, by posting a new message board on the west side of the highway near Bojangles and Pizza Hut. It warns drivers well in advance to pick a lane if they’re going onto the highway or straight.
Some drivers are exploring alternatives. Instead of using Catawba Avenue to go from downtown to the more distant reaches of West Catawba Avenue, some are using Westmoreland Road. Meanwhile, a trip from north of Cornelius to the west side of the highway is faster right now using I-77 to Exit 28, instead of NC 115 to Catawba Avenue. And some eastbound drivers are hoping to avoid the West Catawba traffic by using Jetton Road Extension and Sefton Park Road, which leads to Liverpool Parkway, right near Exit 28.
Ultimately, the new traffic pattern – called a diverging diamond interchange, or DDI – will be a good thing for Catawba Avenue traffic. Town officials are asking drivers to be patient with the work.
“While NCDOT and the town have received some comments about the traffic from some understandably frustrated drivers, we have also heard from many that say although the current congestion is difficult, they understand that the construction is necessary to receive the permanent benefits of the new DDI,” Assistant Town Manager Andrew Grant told CorneliusNews.net.
After the first complaints began coming in on Monday, June 30, town officials began working with NCDOT to come up with ways to improve traffic conditions, including the new sign, Grant said.
And there may be more in the works. On Monday night, Town Manager Anthony Roberts told the Town Board, “We continue to work on this and to get complaints about backups.” He said the DOT is looking at traffic signal timing and additional signage.
Grant told commissioners the DOT already has brought in its expert to make a few changes in signal timing and he is monitoring things this week.
But, he added, “Because there is so much traffic and there is only one lane in each direction, there is only so much those tweaks can do.”
So town officials are asking folks to heed the signs and be patient.
Most major construction on the DDI is scheduled to be completed Nov. 1, 2014. Blythe Construction will need another six months or so to complete minor work on the road portion of the project.
Under the new DDI pattern, drivers on Catawba Avenue must cross over to the left side of the road, which is designed to allow smoother, uninterrupted access to I-77 in either direction. The redesigned overpass also will have a central pedestrian walkway and bike path.
Meanwhile, the town will also be picking a contractor later this year for aesthetic improvements, including a signature mast and cabling structure, landscaping and decorative bridge abutments. That work will continue into 2015.
RELATED COVERAGE AND LINKS
June 10, 2014, “Town officials address concerns about Exit 28 lane closures” – coverage of this week’s public meeting on the road plan.
June 9, 2014, “Meeting Wed. to answer questions about Exit 28 overpass closure.” – includes the latest information from the NCDOT.
See an NCDOT Video showing how to drive through a diverging diamond interchange.
Past coverage of the DDI project on CorneliusNews.net.
See the Town of Cornelius information page about the project, on Cornelius.org.