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Interstate 77 toll revenue jumped nearly 70% in last year

The I-77 toll lanes generated more than $59 million in tolls in 2022.
David Boraks
The I-77 toll lanes generated more than $59 million in tolls in 2022.

The private company that manages the Interstate 77 toll lanes in north Mecklenburg generated more than $59 million in toll revenue in 2022, a nearly 70% increase from how much money the lanes produced a year earlier.

The increase was mostly due to I-77 Mobility Partners being able to charge more money per trip. The price of the toll lanes is set, in part, by how much traffic is in the free lanes.

In 2021, the average toll transaction was $1.20.

In 2022, as more people returned to the office and congestion increased, the average toll jumped to $1.70.

A toll transaction represents a driver going from one toll station to another. During the course of a journey to and from uptown to Lake Norman, a motorist would pay several toll transactions.

For instance, the projected toll for a trip from Mooresville to uptown Charlotte during Monday morning rush hour is just under $23, with a transponder. (Drivers who don't have a transponder are charged more). A shorter trip from Cornelius to uptown Charlotte at the same time would cost nearly $16.

The total revenue in 2022 is also more than a 260% increase in revenue from 2020, when businesses and schools were closed, and people were working from home during the height of the pandemic.

Will the state turn to Cintra to build I-77 South toll lanes?

The surge in revenue comes as the North Carolina Department of Transportation considers partnering with a private company to build and manage express toll lanes on I-77 from uptown to the South Carolina state line. Last year, Spanish company Cintra, the parent company of I-77 Mobility Partners, submitted an unsolicited bid to build the lanes in south Charlotte.

Charlotte-area elected officials in February voted to move forward with studying the Cintra proposal.

Some members of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, however, opposed the study because of the controversy over the I-77 North Mecklenburg project, which opened in late 2019.

There was intense opposition to the I-77 project last decade.

Some Lake Norman-area residents said the state should have widened the highway with free lanes first; others opposed giving a private company the right to manage and collect toll revenue for 50 years. Many people also opposed the idea of variable-priced tolls.

“How many people would have actually been in favor of it if they knew they were going to pay $4 to go one exit on I-77?” said Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox in February. “I think that was kinda unimaginable.”

The other option for the I-77 toll lanes in south Charlotte would be for the state to build and manage them. Having the N.C. Turnpike Authority set toll rates could mean lower prices for consumers, because the state wouldn’t be focused on making a profit.

But the DOT has said it doesn’t have enough money, and that publicly-funded lanes might not open until the 2040s.

How much profit is unknown

The nearly $60 million in revenue generated in 2022 does not mean I-77 Mobility Partners made that much money in profit.

The company must pay off debt service for building the lanes. It also must pay to operate them.

But Cintra's revenue is now well ahead of projections, even in spite of the pandemic. Before the lanes opened, consultant C&M Associates projected toll lane revenue, based on an opening in late 2018.

The lanes actually opened a year late, at the end of 2019.

The company projected that in their third full year of operation (which was supposed to be 2021) the lanes would generate $42 million a year; by 2022 they were estimated to generate $47 million.

Under its contract with the state, I-77 Mobility Partners can tap into a fund of $75 million if toll revenues fall short of projections. The firm said it has not accessed that money.

I-77 Mobility Partners said that the toll lanes have made I-77 safer for motorists and have reduced travel times for people in the free lanes.

The firm said that before the lanes opened, there were 196 accidents per 100 million miles traveled in 2015. That fell to 103 accidents per 100 million miles driven in 2022.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.