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Why Couldn't The DOT Build Free Lanes On I-77?

Mark Hames
Charlotte Observer
Traffic on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte turns into two lanes at I-485. Toll lane critics have said a sensible project would be to add a new lane from Exit 23, north of I-485, in Huntersville.

Charlotte Observer

In the debate over whether to build toll lanes on Interstate 77, the N.C. Department of Transportation has said starting over with a new plan would take years.

And besides, the state has said, a plan to build new free lanes on I-77 wouldn’t score high enough under the state’s new transportation formula, known as Strategic Transportation Investments, to get funded. The formula ranks projects based on factors such as cost, congestion relief, safety and economic development potential.

Toll lane critics have said a sensible project would be to add a new free lane from Exit 23, which is just north of I-485. The new lane would run for 5 or 7 miles, to Exit 28 or Exit 30.

The DOT said there is “no section of I-77 North that would score high enough, or fall within corridor cap limits, to be funded for construction for at least the next ten years under the law.”

That statement is based on a hypothetical DOT scoring of different projects that would add free lanes from uptown to Mooresville.

But is that really the case?

When the state released its hypothetical scoring of free lanes in July, the DOT didn’t give a score to what would probably be the most likely widening project had the toll lane concept never existed.

[READ MORE: House select committee will review I-77 toll project]

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It’s still a mystery how that project would have scored. It’s also a mystery why the DOT chose not to give it a score.

The issue is complicated.

First of all, the toll lane project never had to be scored. The state decided that it was in the planning stages before the transportation formula was enacted, so it was grandfathered in.

But here is a walk-through of what might have happened if there was no toll lane project.

If you are driving north on I-77, the highway drops from four lanes in each direction to two lanes just north of Interstate-485. That’s the largest bottleneck on the highway.

Toll lane critics have said a sensible project would be to add a free lane from Exit 23, which is just north of I-485. The new lane would run for 5 or 7 miles, to Exit 28 or Exit 30.

There is plenty of land within the existing right of way for the new lanes. Compared with other construction projects, adding a lane would be simple.

The new lane wouldn’t solve congestion, but it would give Lake Norman commuters some relief – especially those going to Huntersville or Cornelius. They would be able to exit before the highway narrowed to two lanes in each direction.

Because of the congestion on the highway, and the relatively low cost of construction (probably less than $100 million), that project would likely score well under the formula.

David Hartgen, a transportation consultant and former UNC Charlotte professor, said he thinks that widening project would score among the top quarter of projects statewide.

But when the state issued its hypothetical scores, it skipped over that project.

Here is what the DOT evaluated:

▪ Adding a fifth lane in each direction from Interstate 277 to I-85, which is about 3 miles. That would cost $215 million. Its high cost is because of the project being in an urban area, where the state would have to buy right of way. It scored a 59.66 out of 100.

▪ Adding a lane from I-85 to West Catawba Avenue, Exit 28. That 15-mile project would cost $144 million. It scored a 52.26.

▪ Adding a lane from West Catawba Avenue to N.C. 150 in Mooresville, Exit 36. That 10-mile project would cost $91.5 million. It scored a 54.86.

The DOT also plans to widen I-77 in south Charlotte from uptown to the South Carolina state line in 10 years. That project scored a 61.1.

The state said that the I-77 south project’s higher score means that it has priority over any I-77 north project. The new transportation law also said there is a $200 million “corridor cap” for any one highway over a 10-year period.

The DOT added that because I-77 south has priority, it would gobble up all of the corridor cap money for I-77. There would be nothing left for the Lake Norman area.

But it’s unknown how a widening from Exit 23 to Exit 28 or Exit 30 would have fared.

The DOT said it didn’t score that section because the local transportation planning group didn’t ask it to.

“(It) didn’t submit a project to widen I-77 with general purpose lanes from Exit 23 to 28 to be scored under STI, so there was no defined project for NCDOT to score,” said DOT representative Jordan-Ashley Baker.

State Sen. Jeff Tarte once supported the toll lanes but now opposes them. He said he asked the DOT to score a free lane project for just the Lake Norman area.

“You would score it, and let it stand on its own,” he said. “You would then fund it accordingly.”

He said Gov. Pat McCrory and the DOT said they wouldn’t do that.

Tarte said toll opponents plan to ask the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization to request the Lake Norman widening be scored. New officials will be seated in January.

But getting CRTPO’s support hinges on the city of Charlotte, which controls 31 of 68 votes.

The Charlotte City Council and Mayor Jennifer Roberts haven’t shown any indication they are willing to stop the toll lane project.

In November, Tarte and state Rep. Charles Jeter held a meeting with local officials and the DOT to talk about the toll lane project. No one from Charlotte attended.