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CorneliusNews.net

NCOT Tells Towns It Won't Delay I-77 Toll Lane Project

WideningI77logo.jpg
Corneliusnews.net

NCDOT officials say despite questions and requests for a delay from local officials in the Lake Norman area, they’ll proceed with the $655 million widening project and toll lanes for I-77 north of Charlotte.

The DOT noted that the project has been in the works for almost a decade and had won the support of local representatives on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO).

In a statement Thursday, NC Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said the NCDOT won’t delay the project, saying it would improve transportation in the I-77 corridor.

“We respect and appreciate the many voices and opinions of this project. The I-77 Express Lanes project was unanimously approved and requested by the local transportation planning organization (CRTPO, formerly MUMPO). NCDOT is delivering the project local planners developed and recommended based upon the fact that this project will offer drivers more choices for reliable travel time, and help manage traffic on one of the state’s most congested corridors. As requested by the local planning organization the I-77 Express Lanes project is moving forward toward financial close with construction scheduled to begin later this year.”

The state has signed a 50-year agreement with Spain-based construction giant Cintra to widen 26 miles of the congested I-77 from the Brookshire Freeway in north Charlotte to Exit 36 in Mooresville. The plan calls for a new Cintra subsidiary, I-77 Mobility Partners, to build two toll lanes in each direction from Charlotte to Cornelius, and one toll lane in each direction from there north to Exit 36 in Mooresville.

I-77 Mobility Partners has said it expects to complete financing arrangements and reach a final “financial close” with the NCDOT on May 27. Construction could begin this summer, and be finished in 2018.

Town boards in Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson all have passed resolutions over the past two weeks raising questions about a change in wording of the I-77 widening contract that could prevent the addition of general purpose lanes from Exit 28 to Exit 36. Davidson and Cornelius officials asked the DOT to delay the final close on the contract, as did Mooresville Mayor Miles Atkins, who issued a statement Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Iredell County and Mecklenburg County commissioners also have been discussing responses to the contract amendment issue and the project in general.

All have wanted more information about why local officials and the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO) were not informed that the NCDOT had agreed to the contract amendment.

The re-wording added the section of I-77 from Exit 28 in Cornelius to Exit 36 in Mooresville to areas covered in a “non-compete” clause. State plans had called for an eventual widening of that stretch of highway through the Lake Norman area. But the change means the state would not be able to widen the stretch without compensating the contractor for potential lost toll revenue.

LETTER TO THE TOWNS

In a letter to town officials Thursday, the DOT’s Chief Deputy Secretary Nicholas Tennyson said the project has long had the support of local officials and that it was “moving forward toward financial close … As we look to the future for North Carolina, we cannot afford to abandon public private partnerships (P3) and toll lane options. … We cannot ignore the potential damage to future opportunities that would result from a last second cancellation of this project.”

Tennyson also commented on the contract change, saying it had been discussed with local officals and that the DOT had decided it would be willing to discuss future compensation for a contractor if extra conventional lanes ever were added from Exits 28 to 36.

He also told local leaders that alternative funding methods had been discussed beginning in 2007 by local road planners, then the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO).

“Ultimately the local planning organization identified the value of having a corridor-long solution, instead of a series of relatively small scale widening projects, as the preferred alternative,” he wrote.

He also said, contradicting the assertions of toll lane opponents, that the project would not rank high enough on the state’s new Strategic Mobility Formula for prioritizing road projects. “The project would have to be scored and successfully compete against projects across the state and in the region. To be funded on a statewide level, a project on I-77 would be subject to corridor spending limits and (judging by prioritization scores from 2014) would not be programmed until widening is accomplished south of Charlotte on I-77.”

We’ve got calls out to various local officials seeking comment on the NCDOT’s announcement, and will update this story when we talk to them.

BACKGROUND ON THE PROJECT

Cintra is investing about $250 million of its own money in the project. The state DOT plans to contribute $94 million.

The remainder would come from loans and bonds, which received federal approval in recent weeks. Those loans and bonds would be repaid – and Cintra will collect a profit – on revenues the toll lanes generate over the next 50 years.

The toll lanes, which DOT officials refer to as “managed lanes,” would be optional, and open to any drivers willing to pay the fee. The lanes would be free for drivers with at least three people in a car, as well as motorcycles and buses.

The DOT has said the project will guarantee a reliable ride to and from Charlotte at peak hours by using varying toll rates to regulate the number of cars in the toll lanes. Officials have said they hope to begin construction this year. The first sections could be open in 3 1/2 years, by the end of 2018, Tamargo said.

The company and DOT haven’t announced toll rates yet, but one early study suggested that a full 26-mile commute at peak commuting hours could cost $9 inbound to Charlotte and $11.75 outbound. The DOT and Cintra have said tolls would vary during the day according to the amount of traffic, and that they can’t say right now what the prices would be. Pricing would be up to the I-77 Mobility Partners, and wouldn’t be set by the state.

RELATED DOCUMENTS

May 14, 2015, NCDOT letter to local officials.

See previous coverage of the I-77 widening project on CorneliusNews.net.

May 13, 2015, DavidsonNews.net, “Davidson board, Mooresville mayor join calls for delay in I-77 toll lane contract.”

May 5, 2015, “Commissioners call for 90-day delay in I-77 toll lane project”