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Lake Norman Leaders Eye Compromise On Toll Lanes

Opponents of North Carolina Department of Transportation's $650 million toll-lane project on I-77 from Charlotte to Lake Norman are lining up behind a possible compromise. It wouldn't completely eliminate tolls, but they hope it would ease the project's impact on the area. 

Town and business leaders from the Lake Norman area said they'd be willing to accept one toll lane on I-77, if NCDOT is willing to convert one of the two planned toll lanes to a free lane. That was the consensus among members of an advisory committee that met in Cornelius Thursday.     

Construction on I-77 toll lanes near I-85 in April.
Construction on I-77 toll lanes near I-85 in April.

That change would mean the busy interstate would have three free lanes, instead of two, from Huntersville to Mooresville. That includes the current two-lane causeways over Lake Norman in Cornelius and Davidson, which are being expanded to three lanes. Businessman John Hettwer argued tolls would hurt the area's economy. But he said he's willing to accept a compromise that adds a free lane.

"General purpose lanes are the lifeblood of our community," Hettwer said, "and really one of our lines in the sand all along is you cannot toll our last free lane, our last right-of-way across Lake Norman."

NCDOT consultant Mercator Advisors has suggested several options for changing or ending the state's 50-year contract with Spanish construction giant Cintra.  They include what's called "complete and delete" — where NCDOT would buy out the contractor and eliminate the toll lanes. In recent weeks, the committee has discussed the "complete and revise" compromise — converting one toll lane to a free lane and having the state operate the remaining toll lane.

State Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon attended most of the group's seven meetings, including this one.

"I would say all the options are viable. The questions come down to cost, timelines,"  Trogdon said. "Will it score compared to other projects within the state, and in the region?"

Trogdon was referring to the state's transportation funding formula, which scores road funding requests based on congestion and other factors. As for cost, unless legislators approve a special appropriation — and that seems unlikely — money to buy out the contractor would have to come from existing DOT funds. NCDOT's consultant estimates it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Trogdon pledged to meet the advisory group again in late July to outline DOT's plans. The toll lanes are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

Any change or end to the contract with Cintra, and its local subsidiary I-77 Mobility Partners, would require negotiations with NCDOT.  So far, they aren't talking formally. But I-77 Mobility Partners has written letters to Trogdon expressing concern about the advisory group discussions. 

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