I learned this week that Independence Boulevard might get a toll lane as soon as 2017. Maybe it was announced months or years ago, but it never registered with me. After 30 years of half-baked plans to transform Independence into an expressway, I take everything related to the venerable boulevard with a grain of salt.
What interested me was the lack of outrage over a toll lane – just the opposite of the reaction when it was announced that I-77 may get toll lanes. Residents around the lake mobilized, created Facebook pages, conducted interviews on local TV and attended city meetings. It was community outrage at its fiercest, at least for Charlotte.
But Independence, like an old ugly workhorse still in the fields, doesn’t pique that kind of passion. It almost seems that we as a city are suffering from Independence Boulevard revitalization fatigue.
To put things in perspective, the entire loop of I-485 was completed faster than Independence Boulevard’s transformation into an expressway. Crazy, huh?
A History of Construction
It was about 20 years ago that the Pecan Avenue and Hawthorne Lane intersections of Independence were permanently blocked. It was progress. Independence was finally becoming the expressway Matthews and Union County always wanted. A few years later, Briar Creek and Wendover became interchanges.
It took almost another 10 years before the next intersection, Albemarle Road, was turned into its current interchange.
Now, 10 years after that, the intersections for Sharon Amity and Idlewild are slated to be closed and turned into interchanges by 2016.
That’s a long time to create five interchanges. I’m pretty sure an elevated expressway could have been built in that same amount of time and probably at less cost.
A Blight on the City
Meanwhile, the former strip malls and fast food restaurants are crumbling. It’s the type of urban decay you’d expect to see in a rust belt city up north, not a booming Charlotte.
I wonder what travelers from up north think about Highway 74 when they travel through Charlotte to the beach. It’s probably not what they imagined. “People are leaving Buffalo for this?” they probably ask.
Photo via Otherstream on Flickr.
Understandably, transforming Independence into an expressway can’t be easy. This was a road that when constructed in the 1950s, sliced through a residential area between Plaza Midwood and Elizabeth. From its beginning, it was a troubled.
In the 1960s and 70s, Independence was one of the hottest commercial areas of the city. The coliseum, hotels, dozens of restaurants, an office tower, department stores and mom and pop shops made it a prime destination for Charlotteans and surrounding counties.
When the expressway was first planned in the late 1980s, the idea of shutting down the hundreds of vibrant businesses that lined Independence must have seemed daunting. Building an expressway would mean alienating all the commercial activity that once made the road great.
No one could have predicted the urban decay that ensued. The only businesses that continue to thrive are the car dealerships who benefit from thousands of commuters who pass by each day.
Present and Future
The decaying buildings are a result of poor planning. Over the past 30 years, plans have been drawn up and replaced with more plans. A bus lane was added. Light rail was proposed. Frontage roads have been mentioned. Seems like everyone had a plan.
Now it’s toll lanes. They extend from close to uptown to the CarMax near Matthews and then abruptly stop. At that point, the road converges into two lanes both ways and the expressway turns back into a regular highway. I’m not a civil engineer, but I’m just guessing this will be a major bottleneck in years to come.
So who’s to blame for the mess that is Independence Boulevard? Why has it become a commuter’s nightmare, a planner’s pain, and (for the most part) a commercial wasteland? It’s difficult to say. But you have to wonder if politicians, county and city staff, and the state DOT ever had a clue that transforming Independence Boulevard into an expressway would have taken this long, cost this much, and driven everyone on the east crazy to the point that we almost just don’t care anymore.