Jul 17, 2023 - Development

Huntersville traffic will get worse before it (maybe) gets better

Huntersville traffic Statesville Road and Gilead Road

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Huntersville mostly feels like a small town. But within a quick drive, residents can reach the buzz of Uptown or the tranquility of Lake Norman. For that reason, a lot of people are moving there.

Also for that reason, those drives are getting a lot more crowded and a lot less short.

Driving the news: Fears of gridlock are motivating residents to speak out about large-scale development proposals, including Birkdale Village’s rejected expansion and Lagoona Bay.

  • Although some projects are underway, Huntersville is, for the most part, still not upgrading its roads and other infrastructure fast enough to keep up with the town’s breakneck growth.

“People are just frustrated because there’s been development upon development without planned infrastructure being put in place,” says Mecklenburg County Commissioner Elaine Powell, who represents Huntersville in District 1.

Huntersville Town Center
Huntersville Town Center construction on Gilead Road. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Why it matters: Addressing traffic and congestion is a priority for residents and town leaders as Huntersville expands. Around 3,000 people lived in Huntersville in 1990. Today, the town’s population is more than 61,200 and on pace to exceed 105,000 by 2040.

  • Town leaders are bracing for the boom, most recently adopting a formal plan for how to manage growth through 2040.

So, what can be done?

A decade ago, a state law established a data-based formula for prioritizing transportation project funding. “That actually was a great thing for Huntersville,” Mayor Melinda Bales tells Axios. “That got our projects pushed up and into the queue because of the data as a fast-growing community.”

  • But road construction takes years to plan. Projects that were prioritized years ago aren’t starting construction until now.
  • Plus, North Carolina Department of Transportation’s funding shortfalls have delayed projects across the state.

“It’s gonna get more painful before the projects get complete,” Bales says. “But once they’re done, these projects will really impact the Huntersville community in a positive way.”

Yes, but: New road capacity will draw drivers to those routes, thus the roads could eventually reach the same level of congestion as pre-widening. It’s a well-studied phenomenon called “induced demand”: Widening roads could incite more development, as well.

  • Bales says the Huntersville 2040 Plan should guide that development. “You can’t just say no building. That’s really not an option, but you can be purposeful with the growth.”

For instance, town staff is recommending commissioners deny the rezoning request for Lagoona Bay, a 260-acre project with more than 1,000 residences. The recommendation was made partly because it does not fit in with the 2040 Plan.

  • Town commissioner Rob Kidwell says the town should focus on stopping overgrowth rather than “business killer” road projects. It can do so by requiring lower density in its zoning districts, he says.
  • “I always hear my fellow commissioners and people running for office say we can’t do anything about traffic,” he says. “We can. We can say no to rezonings.”

Go deeper: CATS is betting $5 million Norfolk Southern will share its tracks

Between the lines: Most of the roads in Huntersville, besides neighborhood streets, are owned by the state. The town and county lack the authority and funding to improve the most congested arteries themselves.

  • County commissioner Powell notes North Carolina could use impact fees. In other cities across the country, those one-time charges for new developments help cover the cost of new road infrastructure, schools, parks and recreation facilities. But those fees face powerful opposition from builders and lawmakers in the General Assembly.
  • “There are negative things that happen from development, and you need the infrastructure and the tools to be able to deal with the burden,” she says.

Zoom out: The neighboring small town of Cornelius faces similar congestion concerns to Huntersville. It recently took an 18-month “time out” from approving development projects over 10 residential units while it put together a growth management plan, finalized in March.

  • The next step for the town is to take on some of the small-scale road construction projects that NCDOT has pushed off, Cornelius commissioner Colin Furcht says. He thinks the town may be able to find better deals on contractors to cut down on estimated project costs.
  • “I think we’ve all just hung our hat on the fact that ‘Oh, it’s a state road, DOT has to do it,’ and just hand the keys over and wait,” he says. “But I think we’re getting tired with the wait.”

Here’s the latest on some of the upcoming projects that may ease congestion, at least temporarily.

  • Of note: It’s unclear how long most of these projects will take. NCDOT usually doesn’t have a completion date until after the advertised letting date, a spokesperson told Axios.

US 21 (Statesville Road)

Gilead
I-77 and Gilead Road. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Striped orange and white drums line portions of U.S. 21 and Gilead Road for several projects. Construction is underway to upgrade the intersection and add bike and pedestrian features. It will finish in summer 2025.

Just farther down Gilead, crews will swap the I-77 interchange with a diverging diamond configuration. The design cuts down on crashes by an average of 37% and reduces injury and fatal crashes by an average of 54%.

  • Starting in 2025, U.S. 21, from Gilead Road to Holly Point Drive, will be widened to four lanes.
  • Come 2029, the widening will continue north of N.C. 73, up to Westmoreland Road.

NC 73 (Sam Furr Road)

Sam Furr

Sam Furr Road, outside of Birkdale. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Miles of Sam Furr Road will be broadened, including widening to six lanes in front of Birkdale Village. Plans include multi-use paths, bike lanes and sidewalks. Here’s the timeline for the upcoming stretches:

  • Davidson-Concord Road to U.S. 29: Property acquisition will begin in fiscal year 2024 and the let date, when bids open, is scheduled for fiscal year 2026.
  • N.C. 115 (Old Statesville Road) to Davidson-Concord Road: Property acquisition is in progress. The let date is scheduled for fiscal year 2026.
  • West Catawba Avenue to Northcross Drive: The property acquisition is in progress. The let date is scheduled for fiscal year 2026.
  • Beatties Ford Road to West Catawba Avenue: Property acquisition should start soon. The let date is scheduled for fiscal year 2026.
  • N.C. 16 to Beatties Ford Road: The property acquisition will begin in fiscal year 2026. The let date is scheduled for fiscal year 2029.

By 2040, NCDOT projects traffic on N.C. 73 will increase by 35%, approximately 23,900 to 45,500 vehicles per day, between N.C. 16 and West Catawba Avenue. From West Catawba Avenue and Northcross Drive, traffic will increase by 60%, or 55,000 to 60,000 cars daily.

Torrence Creek Greenway
An extension of Torrence Creek Greenway, connecting to an I-77 tunnel, is under construction through winter 2024. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Transit and mobility

Expanding public transportation and alternative modes of getting around could help get vehicles off the crowded roads. But Huntersville residents predominantly travel by car, and much of the traffic is commuters or travelers passing through.

  • The 2040 Plan emphasizes that upcoming transportation projects should incorporate bicycle and pedestrian accommodations as much as possible, particularly in places like Blythe Landing Community Park.

The City of Charlotte has a multi-billion transit plan that envisions the Red Line from the Charlotte Gateway District in Uptown through the downtowns of Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson. But for several reasons, it has stalled.

  • Mayor Bales says if the Red Line ever happens, it could be great for Huntersville. “But at this point, everything’s kind of quiet,” she adds.

In the meantime, Charlotte Area Transit System is running the MetroRAPID service, a direct bus route from four park-and-ride locations in North Mecklenburg to Uptown.

What’s next: The Town of Huntersville intends to develop a mobility plan. The document would pinpoint ways to connect between streets, whether by bike or car, and consider how to make Huntersville a Vision Zero community, meaning reducing the number of deaths by car to zero.

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