No plans for changes to I-485 interchange despite wreck

by Andrew Batten

Even after a number of wrecks at the on-ramp from Interstate 485’s inner loop to Interstate 77 North, N.C. Department of Transportation officials don’t have plans to add any new safety features.

The ramp has been the scene of at least two serious rollovers in less than a year including a Nov. 10 wreck where a tractor-trailer truck flipped, breaking the driver’s back, said Chief John Stroup, who heads the North Mecklenburg Rescue Squad that responds to accidents in the area.

About 95 percent of the crashes the rescue squad responds to in the I-485 and I-77 interchange area have been on the ramp, Exit 23B, since the interstate’s last 5.5 mile section opened in December 2008.

“It’s not banked very good,” Stroup said. “Even in a car, it’s rough. After they opened that interchange down there, every accident has been on the ramp.”

There’s a single yellow sign informing motorists that the curve on the downhill ramp is safe at 45 mph and slower. The posted speed limit on I-485 is 65 mph.

After a Mountain Island Weekly inquiry into the ramp’s safely, Pate Butler, a division engineer for the state, tested the ramp with a ball-bank indicator, a device that tells her at what speed motorists can safely take the ramp.

“Forty-five mph was appropriate,” she said. “That is the correct speed for the ramp. Now if someone comes through there at a higher speed, that does not necessarily mean that they will be able to stay within their lane or negotiate their curve as well.”

The state has no plans to add additional signs or flashing warning lights like the ones added to the I-77 and Interstate 85 interchange, where a number of vehicles, including several tractor-trailers, have rolled over in the past. Those accidents were usually due to speed or wet roads, Butler said.

“I’m not aware of any issues of that type” at the I-485 and I-77 interchange in north Mecklenburg, she added.

The state doesn’t have a threshold, or a number of accidents that occur at a given location, before officials start evaluating the safety of a road, Butler said.

“If we are made aware of an issue or asked to investigate a location, we definitely will and see what kind of crash history is there and what possible types of improvements need to be made, if any,” she said.

But Stroup believes it’s not a matter of including more signs on the interchange; the ramp was not engineered with a proper bank in the first place.

“You can’t bank a ramp the other way and expect cars to stay on it,” Stroup said.

One issue the state does know of is the absence of reliable wreck statistics for the ramp. The Department of Transportation, which tracks accident locations on highways, doesn’t have an accurate count of how many accidents have happened on not only the ramp, but the whole interchange.

When N.C. Highway Troopers investigate accidents at the interchange, they aren’t including enough information, said Cliff Braam, who tracks accidents on highways for the Department of Transportation. Since I-485 is a loop, or at least a partial one, there are two I-485 and I-77 interchanges; one in north Mecklenburg and the other in south Mecklenburg. Braam couldn’t provide an accurate count of the number of accidents on the ramp.

“If the reference roads giving by the highway patrol don’t reference something other than I-77, then we have no way of deciding where that crash actually occurred, which is going to be an issue in the future if it isn’t already,” Braam said.

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