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Charlotte City Council Gets Update, Worst-Case Scenario For I-77 Toll Lanes

I77_Toll_before_after.jpg
NC DOT
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State and city transportation officials pitched the Charlotte City Council Monday night on why toll lanes are a good idea for I-77. After pointed questions from council members, they also walked through what the worst-case scenario for the toll project would be.

Warren Cooksey from the North Carolina Department of Transportation started with an image of a massive Chinese freeway: 19 lanes snarled with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

His point was that more lanes don’t necessarily mean less traffic.

“History is showing that the more you add general-purpose lanes, especially in a growing metropolitan area, the traffic arrives, and the congestion returns,” he said.

Cooksey, who used to be on City Council, told some of his former colleagues that adding toll lanes is the best answer for I-77. The state has entered a public-private partnership with Cintra, a Spanish company, to build and manage the lanes.

Cooksey said they’ll stretch 26 miles, “going from uptown to Mooresville, two lanes in each direction from uptown to Cornelius – including converting the existing HOV lanes – and then one lane in each direction to Mooresville.”

The toll lanes will be optional. You can keep driving in the general-purpose lanes for free. And if you have at least two other people in the car with you, you can use the toll lanes for free. City buses can, too.

Everyone else can use the lanes for a price that’ll vary based on how many drivers use them. That worries council member Kenny Smith.

“My possible fear is that you’re going to price people out of using it, and we’re going to have lanes that sit empty,” he said. “Then you’re going to still have the congestion.”

Cooksey responded that getting drivers to use the lanes is the whole point. 

“If the price is so high that cars aren’t getting into the lanes, the price has to drop because the goal is to get cars into the lane,” he said.

That led to this question from council member Ed Driggs.

“Who has control over the pricing?” Driggs asked.

A subsidiary of Cintra will set the price and collect the tolls for the next 50 years. Another subsidiary of the Spanish company recently went bankrupt operating a toll road in Indiana, and council members asked if that could happen here.

Norm Steinman from the Charlotte Department of Transportation said that road is all tolls, unlike the I-77 project. 

“There are 24 of these high-occupancy toll lanes, express toll lanes, managed lane projects in the United States,” he said. “Not a single one has failed.”

But if Cintra’s investors aren’t getting the return they want, council member LaWana Mayfield asked, “Is there anywhere in our agreement that would give them the ability to then sue?”

Cooksey said the contract is explicit on that point.

“Neither the state of North Carolina, nor any of its officers or anyone else associated with the government of the state of North Carolina or any local governments is on the hook for the debt,” he said.

He said that’s a major draw in the public-private partnership. He said another is that of the $655 million the project will cost, the state is only paying $88 million.

Council members pushed him on that. He conceded if toll revenues fall dramatically short of projections, the state’s tab could grow by $75 million.

“The absolute worst-case scenario - everything falls to pieces - the state of North Carolina has a 26-mile improvement on I-77 for a grand total of $163 million,” he said. “We could not build this infrastructure for $163 million.”

The transportation officials also told city council about plans for similar toll projects in other parts of Mecklenburg County, including on US-74 and I-485.

That drew this response from council member Greg Phipps.

“Is it safe to say then with this I-77 project, that we’re moving towards, for lack of a better word, toll-sifying all the major roadways?” he asked.

A city transportation official described it as moving toward a “network” of optional toll lanes.