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I-77 Toll Lane Debate Gets More Intense

Nick de la Canal/WFAE

 If driving down I-77 is part of your daily commute, you’ll probably agree a solution is needed for the growing congestion on the interstate. North Carolina’s Department of Transportation intends to add toll lanes to ease traffic and potentially provide the state with extra income. But as the plan enters its final stages, the state is experiencing some significant pushback.

Nearly 200 people crowded into Cornelius Town Hall last week to organize against the toll lanes.

“This is a really bad idea as far as I’m concerned,” says resident Gary Taylor.

“It’s a travesty,” says organizer Mary Lou Richardson.

“Why would you do this to the public?” bemoans another organizer, Vallee Bubak.

Banners adorn the walls, and many in the crowd wear pins and buttons with the word “Tolls” crossed out. Town commissioners from Huntersville and Cornelius can be seen mingling with the crowd. The event was organized by a group called Widen I-77. Their spokesman, Kurt Naas, led the meeting.

“We will continue to take this message to the DOT, to the elected officials, and let them know that this project is not right,” says Naas to the packed audience, “not only for Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, but anywhere a similar project is proposed across the state.”

The Search for Alternative Funding Sources

Budgets for these big transportation projects are tight. The state gas tax is bringing in less revenue these days since people are buying less gas and using more fuel-efficient cars, and the federal highway trust fund is struggling to make ends meet.

To work around that, the state has hired a Spanish company called Cintra Infraestructuras to help out. The company will take on more than 80 percent of the cost to build one to two toll lanes from Exit 11 in Charlotte to Exit 36 in Mooresville. That means taxpayers put in $88 million, while the company pays more than $550 million. In exchange, Cintra would collect tolls for the next 50 years.

"It provides congestion relief in the next four years to an area that is highly congested."

“It gives people a choice,” says DOT Secretary Tony Tata to the Charlotte Chamber last week, “and choice is always a good thing.”

Tata says the project will not only give people choices, it will relieve congestion on the remaining two to three general purpose lanes. The Charlotte Chamber is also pushing that message in a promotional video using Tata’s voice:


Citizen Pushback

Kurt Naas says all this sounds great, but it doesn’t make business sense.

“If you’re going to operate private toll lanes for profit,” he says, “that private company wants the general use lanes to be congested. We’re looking at 50 years of basically guaranteed congestion.”

Plus, Naas fears high toll rates. A 2012 study by a DOT consultant estimated a round trip between Mooresville and Charlotte could cost $21.63. Widen I-77 obtained the study through a Freedom of Information Act request last month. The DOT responded by saying that estimate is outdated, but Naas doesn’t buy that.

"This is like asking us to buy a house without telling us what our mortgage payment will be."

  “The study is only 18 months old,” he says, “So we’re asking the question ‘What has fundamentally changed in the last 18 months that makes these numbers obsolete?’”

DOT Secretary Tata isn’t saying. He maintains that prices won’t be set until after Cintra holds public hearings on the topic once the contract has been signed. This only adds to Naas’s frustration.

“This is like asking us to buy a house without telling us what our mortgage payment will be,” he says.

The Widen I-77 Plan

Widen I-77 has proposed an alternative. Instead of building 26 miles of toll lanes, build another general purpose lane of just 13 miles along the most heavily congested area. That solution would mean free lanes for everyone, and it’s considerably cheaper for the state - nearly $10 million cheaper.

Unfortunately, that solution is a no-go, says Secretary Tata. It all comes down to the state’s new transportation formula. The formula is meant to decide which transportation projects are the most important and get the most state funds. Tata says the group’s proposal wouldn’t score high enough.

“It’s a moot issue,” he says, “because you would not get to it for, at best case, 2025. The managed lane is the way that we are moving forward.”

Tata says he hopes to close the deal with Cintra by the end of this year. Meanwhile, Widen I-77 intends to continue fighting. The group now says it may seek a court injunction to delay the project.

Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal