Interstate 485 is the Anakin Skywalker of Highways

How a vital road can turn to the Dark Side so quickly


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A picture of the I-85/485 interchange under construction in the University Area.

NCDOT via Flickr

Sometime this spring, the North Carolina Department of Transportation will finally open the last leg of Interstate 485, and people will be overjoyed for, at most, a few months. Then the road will become just a road. Then traffic will arrive. It will build. It will be first annoying, then soul-crushing. "But the new road," they'll say, "it wasn't supposed to be like this! Where did all of these people come from?"

At some point in the future, I’ll just guess ten years from now, the newest section of 485 will become clogged with traffic between Concord and Huntersville, at which time people will start to HATE 485 so much that they’ll wonder why in the hell State Transportation Secretary Ethelred the Unready only built three lanes in each direction. GIVE ME MORE LANES, NCDOT! sounds like a reasonable response. As you'll soon learn, it's not.

Hating on I-485 has become a social media sport in Charlotte, up there with hating on the Panthers when they lose and hating on people who get genuinely worried here when snow is in the forecast:

Yes it does. It’s so bad out there, a Honda Odyssey owner put this on his or her license plate:

I’ve rededicated my journalism career to FINDING THIS PERSON. It seems like a paradox though: You hate 485, yet you just can’t quit 485.

And that’s the problem. The mere fact that 485 exists made Ballantyne and other fringe development possible, which means all sorts of people built houses out there, which means they all need this road to get to work, which means traffic constantly sucks. Interstate 485 is the Anakin Skywalker of highways: It seemed good and full of potential at first before going down the path to the Dark Side. You could take the noble Jedi route and carpool or take an express bus, but most people take the predictably easy way out and hop in their cars by themselves. And then they get to the on-ramp, hoping against hope that the force fields will be down so they can easily penetrate the defenses of Charlotte’s Outerbelt Death Star. Oh, I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive.

Initially, the adding of an additional lane in each direction between I-77 and Rea Road was seen mostly as a good thing. But the goodwill turned to meh when the extra lane didn’t really cut a huge dent into traffic. We probably shouldn’t have been all that shocked, according to a story last October on Vox.com:

Decades of traffic data across the United States shows that adding new road capacity doesn't actually improve congestion. The latest example of this is the widening of Los Angeles' I-405 freeway, which was completed in May after five years of construction and a cost of over $1 billion. "The data shows that traffic is moving slightly slower now on 405 than before the widening," says Matthew Turner, a Brown University economist.

The reason? More roads or wider highways cause people to drive more and further than they had before. You wouldn't have taken 485 before, but now that it's wider, traffic has to be better right? You and hundreds, or even thousands of drivers are having that exact thought. And now your cars are stuck in traffic too.

The chaser to that shot? The fact that the pavers laid down enough blacktop for yet another lane between I-77 and Rea but aren’t using it, because if the state makes it free now, it’ll be much harder to charge a toll on it later:

AWWWW SHIT NO. That is the worst. That’s like drug dealer logic. The first lane’s free, man. But after that, you gotta pay.

Some folks up near Lake Norman are fighting tooth and nail to keep a private company from building toll lanes on I-77 up north of town, saying they’ll file a complaint to stop it. You’d have to imagine that the same thing would happen down in Ballantyne too. This is Ballantyne. Hell, every few years, they get ornery and threaten to secede from Charlotte. If you strike them down, they will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

It’s funny-- roads were meant to be freeing and liberating. Better roads were supposed to bring us faster trips. In many places they do. But if you build an outerbelt, traffic will come, even if you build more lanes, which don’t have as powerful of an effect on traffic as you want them to have. Dammit, 485. You have failed me for the last time.

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The thinly veiled musings of some guy who makes TV news, writes for Charlotte magazine and used to guide whitewater rafts here in town. Hiding behind a guise of wordiness and talkitude, wrapped in seaweed and tendered for your reading pleasure, it's writing contained only by bandwidth and a lack of free time.

About Jeremy Markovich

Jeremy Markovich writes Way Out, the back page column for Charlotte magazine. He is also a producer with NBC Charlotte. Follow him on Google+, and on Twitter at @deftlyinane.

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