The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY BRUCE HEN­DER­SON bhen­der­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Car crashes in the I-77 toll lane work zone north of Char­lotte have soared since con­struc­tion be­gan in Novem­ber 2015.

State trans­porta­tion data bears out what any commuter of In­ter­state 77 north of Char­lotte can at­test: Crashes have soared since con­struc­tion of toll lanes be­gan in late 2015.

The num­ber of crashes in the first two-and-a-half years of work was 62 per­cent higher, on an an­nual ba­sis, than in the three years be­fore it be­gan, N.C. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion data shows.

DOT re­ported 4,650 col­li­sions from Novem­ber 2015 through April of this year. That works out to an av­er­age of more than five crashes a day within the 26-mile work zone, and 710 ad­di­tional ac­ci­dents a year.

The drive be­tween Char­lotte and north­ern Meck­len­burg or south­ern Ire­dell coun­ties can be a white-knuckle hor­ror — en­dured twice a day by com­muters. Driv­ers are hemmed in by con­crete bar­ri­ers as they nav­i­gate twist­ing lanes, of­ten through clouds of dust, for which mark­ers reg­u­larly change. Dump trucks dodge in and out of traf­fic. Stretches of 65 mph traf­fic abruptly screech to a crawl that can last for hours.

Jane Tar­ney, who lives in Hun­tersville, said she would have thought twice about buy­ing her house there six years ago if she’d known about the “death trap” she would soon face.

Tar­ney said her daugh­ter’s car wind­shield is cracked from con­struc­tion de­bris, but she sees no point in hav­ing it re­paired un­til the road work is over. Tar­ney said she re­fuses to drive I-77 her­self and only re­luc­tantly, and ner­vously, rides as a pas­sen­ger.

“I haven’t been to Char­lotte since I don’t know when. Used to go to Mooresville a cou­ple of times a week — now I go a cou­ple of times a year, us­ing the back roads, which is a pain!” she said by email. “I am now a pris­oner con­fined to Hun­tersville, Cor­nelius and David­son ... this is no way to have to live and I know others who live like this too.”

The DOT’s state traf­fic en­gi­neer, Kevin Lacy, isn’t sur­prised by the in­crease in crashes. Work­ing on the road while keep­ing it open to 100,000 ve­hi­cles a day, he said, is like per­form­ing open-heart surgery on a pa­tient who has to re­port for work the same day.

“We couldn’t shut the road down,” be­cause no vi­able north-south al­ter­na­tives ex­ist, Lacy said. “At least with the heart pa­tient, he’s not mov­ing around on the ta­ble while you’re work­ing.”

The project will add two toll lanes in each direc­tion from up­town to Exit 28, in Cor­nelius, and one new toll lane in each direc­tion from Exit 28 to Exit 36 in Mooresville.

The project’s 26-mile length also sets it apart. DOT nor­mally builds projects in three- to fivemile seg­ments, as state fund­ing be­comes avail­able. Pri­vate money — the Span­ish firm Cin­tra is build­ing the $647 mil­lion toll lanes and will col­lect the rev­enues — made it pos­si­ble to build the I-77 lanes as one project.

“We would have had that road un­der con­struc­tion for 10-plus years if we had bro­ken it up into pieces,” Lacy said. “How many years have we been widen­ing I-85? Some (good) por­tion of our life­times.”

Some other in­sights from the DOT data:

Traf­fic back­ups cause the most com­mon types of ac­ci­dents, rear-end col­li­sions and side-swipes. That was true be­fore and dur­ing toll lane con­struc­tion. While side-swipe crashes more than dou­bled dur­ing the road work, rear-end crashes rose only mod­estly. South­bound ve­hi­cles were in­volved in more to­tal crashes be­fore and dur­ing con­struc­tion. But dur­ing the toll lane project those ve­hi­cles more than dou­bled their num­ber of crashes into fixed ob­jects, such as con­crete bar­ri­ers, and side-swipe col­li­sions. North­bound ve­hi­cles had fewer ac­ci­dents over­all, but their an­nual crash av­er­age rose more sharply than ve­hi­cles trav­el­ing south. More crashes oc­cur in cer­tain times of year, par­tic­u­larly spring and fall.

Up­town Char­lotte res­i­dent Cort­ney Scheckel, who works in David­son, says the dark morn­ings of fall and win­ter are the worst times for what she calls her “ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fy­ing” daily drives.

“There are no street­lights work­ing, no flood


State traf­fic en­gi­neer Kevin Lacy

lights on, the lines are faded, twisted, hap­haz­ardly drawn and old lines hardly re­moved; it’s lit­er­ally ev­ery per­son for his or her­self,” she said by email. “Add some rain and the glare, and it’s per­fect con­di­tions for a se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent.”

A rock kicked up from the road­way re­cently cracked her wind­shield, and Scheckel has also suf­fered a flat tire from road­way de­bris. Last Fe­bru­ary, a car ahead of Scheckel clipped a traf­fic bar­rel, which flew into the air and smashed into her car’s bumper. She slammed on her brakes, nearly get­ting rear-ended, and be­cause of heavy traf­fic, she said, she couldn’t get the li­cense plate num­ber of the ve­hi­cle at fault.

“Now I have a man­gled/cracked bumper I don’t dare to re­place be­cause it’s likely to hap­pen again,” she said.

Jean Leier, a spokes­woman for I-77 Mo­bil­ity Part­ners, the Cin­tra sub­sidiary build­ing the lanes, said lane mark­ers changes as con­struc­tion pro­ceeds are re­viewed in­ter­nally and by DOT. Mo­bil­ity Part­ners took over op­er­a­tions and main­te­nance of the work cor­ri­dor from DOT last Oc­to­ber.

Mo­bil­ity Part­ners does con­tin­ual right-of-way main­te­nance in­clud­ing de­bris cleanup and of­fers road­side help to driv­ers, she said. Sugar Creek Con­struc­tion, the project’s con­trac­tor, is “re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing a clean con­struc­tion zone,” she added. Driv­ers can re­port road­way haz­ards by call­ing 855-477-2018.

Driv­ers aren’t the only peo­ple at risk dur­ing the con­struc­tion. A road­way con­struc­tion worker was crit­i­cally in­jured last month when he was hit by a car. (An­other con­struc­tion worker was charged with driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence while work­ing last week, WSOC re­ported.)

But driver grum­bling started soon af­ter work be­gan in late 2015, and hasn’t stopped. Metal de­bris left in the work zone dam­aged at least a dozen cars in 2016. Flood­ing last April closed all but one lane in the work zone near I-77’s in­ter­sec­tion with I-85.

Some driv­ers says it’s easy not to re­al­ize that lanes will be closed for overnight con­struc­tion work un­til it’s too late to take an al­ter­nate route.

Lane clo­sures are posted on road­side mes­sage boards and on DOT’s Traf­fic In­for­ma­tion Man­age­ment Sys­tem, Leier said. The in­for­ma­tion is also posted via on­line alerts and emailed news­let­ters, both found at www.i77­ex­press.com.

Michele Jones said she was driv­ing home from her job in Mooresville when she hit a large truck tread ly­ing in a Hun­tersville exit ramp. It tore off her car’s body skirt­ing, the trim from the front to back bumper, a cor­ner panel and half her bumper: more than $6,000 in dam­age.

“The rea­son why I am an­gry is be­cause there were no lights on the in­ter­state on that night or most nights for that mat­ter,” she wrote in an email to The Ob­server. “If there had been, I at least would have had a chance to swerve around it. “

Sim­i­lar driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ences have hardly helped boost public sup­port for the toll lanes. A fu­ri­ous back­lash to pay­ing tolls to a Span­ish com­pany worked against for­mer Gov. Pat McCrory, who lost his re­elec­tion bid in 2016. Public pres­sure to scrap the Cin­tra con­tract con­tin­ues, al­though DOT of­fi­cials said last week that’s not likely to hap­pen.

Cin­tra says it will fin­ish the new toll lanes by the end of this year. Lacy, the traf­fic en­gi­neer, pre­dicts the num­ber of crashes will fall.

Un­til then, driver Bill Peter­son says, High­way Pa­trol troop­ers should in­crease their pres­ence on a free­way where “peo­ple drive like they’re at the Char­lotte Mo­tor Speed­way.”

“You take your life in your hands on I-77 in the work zone area.”

DAVIE HINSHAW dhin­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Crashes in the I-77 toll lane work zone north of Char­lotte have soared 62 per­cent higher, on an an­nual ba­sis, higher than in the three years be­fore it be­gan. The lanes are due to open by the end of the year.

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