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‘Wow’: Opening of I-485 toll lanes now faces longer delay, NCDOT officials say

Drivers fed up with work on the new Interstate 485 toll lanes in southern Mecklenburg County will have to endure the traffic congestion much longer than initially promised when the project was announced.

The opening of those lanes from I-77 to U.S. 74 (Independence Boulevard) — originally planned for fall 2022 — now faces a delay of up to two years, state highway officials said during an obscure public meeting of a North Carolina Turnpike Authority committee in Raleigh.

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“We’re probably looking at a year-and-a-half to two-year delay on the project,” Andy Lelewski, director of toll operations for the authority, disclosed at an April 22 meeting of the authority board’s operations committee. The authority is in charge of toll lane projects across the state.

“Wow!” one committee member could be heard blurting out, according to a Charlotte Observer review of a video of the meeting on the authority website.

“But that’s definitely subject to change as negotiations (with the project contractor) move forward,” Lelewski said.

“You haven’t heard an announcement about this because there’s no clear date (for the opening),” he said.

The $346 million project will add an express toll lane in each direction from I-77 to U.S. 74 and a general-purpose free lane from the often-bottlenecked stretch from Rea Road to Providence Road, the Observer previously reported.

Jennifer Thompson, NCDOT spokeswoman for the Charlotte area, confirmed the delay to the Observer.

“NCDOT and the contractor are working to evaluate project delays associated with utility relocation activities and design changes.,” Thompson said in an email. “The contract completion date has not been officially extended at this time. It’s expected that the final completion for all project sections will extend beyond the original anticipated opening in late 2022.”

I-485 delay surprises panel

Following previous delays, the project was finally expected to open by late 2022 — until Lelewski’s revelation that shocked some on the authority board.

Utility relocation issues explain part of the delay, Lelewski said. So do additions by state DOT officials to the original construction plans, including more interchanges, he said.

Such delays on large road projects “are not atypical,” Lelewski told the committee.

Board members, however, said the delay surprised them and said they want the contractor, Blythe Construction Inc. of Charlotte, to provide a list of reasons why work has fallen behind.

In a statement, Blythe Construction spokesman Garrett Simmons said the company was aware of the “potential delay.” He likewise cited “utility relocation and changes to the original project design.”

“We are working diligently with NCDOT to address these challenges in a safe and timely manner, to avoid negatively impacting the project schedule,” according to the statement. “As of this time the contract date has not been officially extended.”

The delay could hurt the credibility of the state on future projects, former Cornelius Mayor Chuck Travis told the committee.

Travis is a member of the state turnpike authority’s board of directors and its operations committee.

“To go back to the public and tell them that we’re stalling this project for another 1 1/2 to 2 years in an area that’s rapidly growing — I know with the roads game that we’re always behind in a state that’s always growing — but for future projects, this has major impact as far as credibility as we build more projects across the state,” Travis said at the April 22 meeting.

Such projects should be better managed “up front” as to how long they’ll take to complete, Travis told the committee.

Board member Mary Clayton agreed. She is a senior vice president in the Charlotte office of projects designer Gresham Smith.

“However it got to this point, somebody is supposed to be reviewing (construction progress) routinely,” Clayton told the committee. “So I think we have a problem, and should know about that problem as soon as possible.”

“I absolutely agree,” replied Rodger Rochelle, chief engineer for the authority. “A delay of this magnitude is absolutely unacceptable.”

Rochelle said part of the problem might be DOT “pushing the schedule too hard” on such large projects.

“And if any one little thing goes wrong, it sets their schedule back,” he said of the contractors on such projects.

This image from the North Carolina Turnpike Authority shows some of the improvements planned or underway as part of express lane construction along Interstate 485 in southern Mecklenburg County. North Carolina Turnpike Authority

Toll lane work and other I-485 projects

Lelewski revealed the delay while updating progress on the lanes, including:

Thirty-two miles of portable concrete construction barriers have been installed.

Twelve miles of median widening is under construction.

Construction of the Johnston Road interchange is ongoing.

To lessen the time of planned construction along the I-485 toll lanes corridor, at least three other state DOT projects are being built at the same time as the new lanes:

Ballantyne Commons Parkway bridge widening.

A new interchange at Weddington Road.

John Street interchange improvements.

This story was originally published May 07, 2021 5:45 AM.

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