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As Officials Explain I-77 Toll Plan, Critics Keep Asking Why

David Boraks

More than 100 residents packed a meeting room in Mooresville Wednesday night, many holding signs protesting the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s plan for High Occupancy Toll Lanes, or HOT Lanes, on I-77 from Charlotte north to Mooresville.

About 40 elected and appointed officials from around the region also were there. The Lake Norman Transportation Commission organized the meeting at the Charles Mack Citizens Center to give local officials a chance to learn more about the widening project. Specifically, they outlined the DOT’s plans to contract with a private company to finance, build and operate the toll lane project, through what’s known as a public-private partnership, or P3.

But the presentations by a DOT official and consultants didn’t appear to change many minds. Even some elected officials remained skeptical. Iredell County Commissioner Ken Robertson said the state hasn’t treated the area fairly.

“I have a question of equity. For the last 15 or 20 years we watched all the interstates going into and out of Charlotte getting widened except for ours,” Mr. Robertson said, drawing applause.

Mr. Robertson echoed other project critics, saying the state should find a way to widen the road without tolls.

“Why are we being told that there is an additional 15 years worth of projects that have a higher priority than widening I-77 and that’s why the only way we can get the project done now is through a toll road?” he asked, prompting more applause.

David Ungemah, a toll lanes expert with consultant Parson Brinkerhoff, said later in the meeting that I-77 does not rank in the top 300 nationwide on studies of highway congestion.

State officials say tolls are the best way to help pay for the widening project now, instead of waiting 15 years or more for funding through the DOT’s normal process. Besides generating revenues the project, by incorporating tolls, would qualify for federal and state funds not otherwise available for general purpose (non-toll) lanes, officials say.

The state plans to convert existing lanes or construct new lanes on the highway, creating high-occupancy toll lanes from I-277 in Charlotte north to Exit 36 in Mooresville. Two HOT lanes would be built in each direction between Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One HOT lane would be added in each direction between Cornelius and Mooresville, a section that includes two causeways over Lake Norman.

Drivers would not have to use the HOT lanes, but could choose them when congestion increases. Tolls would rise as traffic grows, to ensure that the HOT lanes don’t get too crowded. As a consultant explained at another LNTC meeting in Cornelius last month, the goal of the project is to guarantee a reliable ride to and from Charlotte, not necessarily to relieve congestion in all the lanes. Tolls would be assessed using an electronic radio-frequency toll system.

The state hopes to pick a private partner this summer. Construction could begin in 2015, and the first stretch of widened road would be open in 2017, officials said Wednesday night.

DOT officials estimate the project would cost $500 million to $550 million with toll lanes, and only about $50 million less to build general purpose lanes instead. The state expects to put in up to $170 million, mainly from federal funds designated for projects that require toll lanes. The contract with a private partner would be 50 years.

Kurt Naas of Cornelius, the leader of the anti-toll group Widen I-77, said he thinks the DOT can do a simpler project with money it already has, relieving congestion at a lower cost. He notes that the I-77 widening project is a massive one, not only adding High Occupancy Toll lanes, but also replacing or rebuilding bridges, and improving the interchange at I-77 and I-277 in Charlotte.

The state’s request for proposals “calls for five bridges to be torn down and rebuilt, and then it calls for four completely new bridges to be built, it calls for a new interchange from 277 to 77 and it calls for new flyover lanes from 277 to Fourth Avenue,” Mr. Naas said. “So all that goes away if you just build general purpose lanes. If you just put in a general purpose lane in each direction, you don’t have to widen the bridges, you don’t have to do the flyover, you don’t have to do the new bridge construction.

Some other residents said they are concerned about the companies bidding on the I-77 project. Said William Rakatansky of Cornelius: “Three of the companies will be foreign companies, not United States companies. One of them will be a United States company with foreign affiliate. So as a result, if this goes through, we’ll be sending our money overseas.”

Rodger Rochelle, the NC DOT’s director of Transportation Program Management, acknowledged the foreign connections, but said until recently public-private partnerships have primarily been used in Europe, so that’s where most of the expertise lies.

He also said much of the private partner’s spending on the I-77 project will be local. “They have to pay their designers, they have to pay their builders, they have to pay their contractors that are maintaining the facility. So by and large, that large chunk of money that’s going out the door in the first few years is going to local contractors, local designers, and local material suppliers. There is an infusion of cash that’s coming to the local economy that’s not having to come directly from your typical tax-supported, gasoline tax-supported funds,” he said.

At the meeting’s end, someone yelled a question from the back of the room: “Is it a done deal?”

Earlier, Mr. Rochelle had offered a glimmer of hope to toll opponents, noting that it’s possible the state won’t get an acceptable bid for the project. His answer to the man’s question at meeting’s end: “It’s not a done deal until we’ve signed a contract.”

Also speaking Wednesday was Michael Benouaich, the head of Parson Brinkerhoff’s P3 Advisory Services.


See previous coverage of the I-77 HOT lanes project on this site.

NCDOT’s I-77 HOT lanes information page, http://fix77now.blogspot.com/

Widen I-77, the citizens’ group opposed to the project.