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I-77 express lane proposal receives tense welcome from regional transportation organization

Many representatives at the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization expressed concern over a new toll lane project, citing a previous express lane project in North Mecklenburg County. "I'm still not over it," Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham said. "I'm still grieving."
Lars Lonnroth
Many representatives at the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization expressed concern over a new toll lane project, citing a previous express lane built in North Mecklenburg County by a private company.

The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization tackled a historically heated issue Wednesday night at the Charlotte Government Center: toll express lanes on I-77.

A private company wants to build toll lanes from Charlotte to the South Carolina state line, but details of its proposal have not been released.

Back in March, the North Carolina Department of Transportation announced it had received an unsolicited proposal to build a new express lane from the Brookshire Freeway to the South Carolina state line.

CRTPO Vice Chair Lisa Qualls says NCDOT declined a request to analyze the proposal because it doesn’t want to appear as taking a stance on it. She says the NCDOT will not get involved unless CRTPO formally gives its support.

CRTPO board member Pat Cotham, a Mecklenburg County Commissioner, says her mind is made up.

I am 100% opposed to this,” Cotham said. “And I also was heavily involved with the debacle of I-77 in the north, and I'm still not over it. I'm still grieving. I still have bumper stickers on my car.”

The company that wants to build the toll lanes has not been identified and little is known about the proposal. What we do know is that the private company has proposed fronting most of the costs to build the express lane and in return, it would keep money made from the tolls.

Supporters say such public-private partnerships help governments strapped for cash build infrastructure. But Matthews' Mayor John Higdon and other opponents say they don’t want a repeat of the toll lane project from uptown to Mooresville.

“if I had signed a contract like that in the corporate world, I would have been fired,” Higdon said. “It's horrendous.”

The Spanish company Cintra built those express lanes, which critics maintain prioritize profits rather than reducing congestion. Higdon notes that the agreement required that no additional lanes be built along the expressway for 50 years, or they’d have to pay the company for lost toll revenue.

But other board members recognized that there is a need for more lanes. Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said she isn’t necessarily for the proposal. But, she said if the city doubles in size in 30 to 40 years as some research suggests, traffic could get even worse.

To take careful steps to talk about it, is it a bad thing? I don't think so because it is a problem,” Eiselt said. “I live close to exit nine on I-77. Every day it's a parking lot, every day. So I don't know what that looks like in 30 to 40 years, which is pretty much the timeframe if D.O.T. were to somehow improve I-77 south.”

Many members were frustrated by the lack of information provided by the Department of Transportation. Cornelius Town board member Denis Bilodeau suspects Cintra is behind the proposal.

“I think the elephant in the room is we know who the private bidder is. At least that’s the suspicion,” Bilodeau said. “Then, the next step is going to a company we don’t want to deal with.”

The board voted 8 to 6 to have its staff dig deeper into the I-77 corridor and present recommendations to the CRTPO. It also voted to ask the DOT to provide more information on the project.

But Qualls says the vote doesn’t mean the board endorses the project. She says it just wants transparency and information.

The board is made up of representatives from various communities in the Charlotte region.

Correction: This story was changed to reflect that NCDOT does not want to take any action on the project unless CRPTO supports it. A previous version said that the NCDOT asked CRPTO to conduct research.

Lars Lonnroth is a journalism and political science student at Mercer University in Georgia. He's interning at WFAE.