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No Cintra toll lanes on I-77 South: Transportation officials recommend against developer's proposal

Toll lanes on I-77 in Cornelius were empty Tuesday morning.
David Boraks

The North Carolina Department of Transportation said Wednesday that it won’t move forward with a proposal from the Spanish company Cintra to build and manage toll lanes planned for Interstate 77 in south Charlotte.

The DOT told the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization that the unsolicited proposal from Cintra received in February 2022 didn’t differ from what the state already has planned for the highway.

Cintra built the I-77 toll lanes in north Mecklenburg, and the company made its unsolicited proposal to do the same thing for I-77 South. The state could still turn to a private company to build the toll lanes on I-77 South, but officials said Wednesday that decision would come after a detailed review of the whole project and an open bidding process.

Charlotte City Council member Ed Driggs — a CRTPO member — said he’s pleased with the DOT’s recommendation.

The Cintra-managed toll lanes in north Mecklenburg have long been controversial. A number of north Mecklenburg residents believe the company’s toll rates, which vary with congestion and increase as more people use the highway, are too high. Some residents also don't like the idea of a private company collecting the revenue.

“Quite honestly, given the sensitivity around Cintra I think that’s good news,” Driggs said. “I like the idea that they are going to be on a completely level playing field with any other bidder and not have a big advantage from having solicited the bid.”

For whom will the lane toll?

The DOT plans to add two express lanes in each direction on I-77 from uptown to either the South Carolina state line or the I-485 interchange in south Charlotte.

The question is whether the state builds and maintains the toll lanes on its own — or whether it turns to a private company that would build the toll lanes and also collect revenue.

A DOT working group said it’s studying which delivery method would be best. It will make a presentation to CRTPO in the spring of 2024.

Having a private company build and manage the lanes could mean they are finished sooner. But it’s likely that motorists would pay higher tolls.

The toll lanes are expected to cost $2.1 billion, though the DOT said Wednesday night that could increase. Driggs said he thinks the 3% inflation factor officials are using in their estimates is likely too low.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.