Updated 10:03 a.m.
After years of construction and court battles, tolls are coming to the Charlotte area later this year in two big highway projects — the 20-mile Monroe Expressway in Union County and the 26-mile Express Lanes project on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte. There’s a difference of opinion in the two areas about tolls.
Workers are grading soil in the highway median under a newly constructed overpass north of Monroe. The road is scheduled to open by Nov. 27, though officials say it could be sooner.
“(Highway) 74 between Marshville and 485 is a very congested corridor. And so it gives motorists and freights another alternative route with hopefully a more reliable travel time,” said Dennis Jernigan of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.
The authority was created in 2002 to look at speeding up some road projects by charging tolls. Traditional sources of funding have been shrinking — like federal grants and gas tax revenues. And lawmakers have been reluctant to raise income or sales taxes.
So here we are, with toll roads.
Right now, the Turnpike Authority collects tolls on just one — the Triangle Expressway in Raleigh, which opened in 2011 and has seen increased use. But by the end of the year, you can add both the Union County bypass and the controversial Express Lanes on I-77.
GETTING AROUND MONROE
The Monroe Expressway is a new road that runs from U.S. 74 just east of I-485 at the Mecklenburg County line north of Monroe, then it steers back U.S. 74 between Wingate and Marshville, in eastern Union County.
It's a good example of the kind of project NCDOT has targeted for tolls: Large and expensive, with regional impact. Its $731 million price tag would be hard to fund anytime soon through NCDOT's underfunded construction budget, Jernigan said.
Most of the roadbed and preliminary paving is done. Bridges, overpasses and sound barriers have been built. So have gantries and storage buildings for electronic tolling equipment.
Tolls haven't been set yet, but will be simple to understand, Jernigan said.
“The toll on the Monroe Expressway will be a set rate. … The preliminary study on it indicates that it will be somewhere in the neighborhood of about 15 cents a mile,” he said.
That works out to about $3 for the whole 20 miles — less if you only travel partway. Tolls will be collected electronically through the turnpike authority's Quick Pass program, using a radio transponder in your car. A basic transponder will be free and it also works in Florida and Georgia. Drivers can pay $7.40 for an E-ZPass version that also can be used in 17 eastern states.
If you don't have a transponder, it'll cost you. A camera will record your license plate, the turnpike authority will send you a bill in the mail, and you'll pay 35 percent more.
Pat Kahle, president of the local chamber of commerce, says the bypass will reduce traffic on Highway 74 through Monroe, which these days is bumper to bumper all day.
“Heaven knows how many stop lights between Mecklenburg County and Anson County,” she said. “And so a lot of folks here locally do not travel 74. So a lot of those businesses that are located on Highway 74 we believe will benefit as well because the traffic will move over to the expressway.”
Kahle also said business owners tell her the tolls will be worth it if they can make up time in deliveries.
There was opposition from environmentalists. A federal appeals court halted the project in 2012 and ordered the state to re-do environmental studies. Another suit challenged the project's water quality permits, arguing the state could relieve congestion in less destructive ways. The state eventually settled that by agreeing to put up $1 million for land conservation.
Now, after three years of construction, the road is almost ready.
I-77 WIDER, BUT AT A COST
Over on I-77, NCDOT is in the midst of adding toll lanes on 26 miles of the congested interstate. Two toll lanes will run between the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. A single toll lane will run from there to Exit 36 in Mooresville.
There's been loud opposition around Lake Norman, including a failed lawsuit trying to kill the project. It's gotten into local politics as well: Activists in the area take credit for helping Democrat Roy Cooper defeat former governor and toll advocate Pat McCrory in 2016.
One concern is the yet to be announced toll rates, which will rise and fall with traffic. A 2012 study suggested it could cost as much as $9 to $11 at rush hour to travel the full length from Mooresville to Charlotte. In other cities with similar "dynamic tolling," rates can be several times that. Critics worry that could send toll-averse drivers onto side roads.
Toll opponents are still hoping the project can be stopped. Last week, Governor Roy Cooper kept that hope alive.
“It's a contract that never should have been entered into to start with," Cooper said during a visit to Charlotte. "What they are trying to do now is to pick the best option of how to go forward."
The contract he's talking about is with a private company. NCDOT has outsourced the whole project to I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Spanish construction giant Cintra. It's supposed to oversee the construction and management of the toll lanes afterward — for 50 years.
Cooper said critics' concerns about the contract are legitimate. The challenge is figuring out how to pay for changing or canceling it.
“Clearly if we don't go through with the project then we're going to have to find some type of financing and some type of funding in order to complete the project or make sure that the project is paid for,” Cooper said.
Among the I-77 project's critics is Bill Russell, chief executive of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. He said businesses typically like new roads. But unlike his counterpart in Union County, he opposes this one.
“In 90 percent of the [cases], when you expand roads and improve your road infrastructure, business growth comes," Russell said. "But in this case, it will only cause congestion, which will harm the quality of life and the economic development and business development for our region."
Russell is pushing his own an alternative: Finish the lanes, then buy out the contract with the private company at a cost of several hundred million dollars. He wants DOT to convert one of the two toll lanes from Charlotte to Cornelius into a general purpose lane. The DOT would manage the other toll lane south of Cornelius. And, there would be no tolls around Lake Norman, from Cornelius to Mooresville.
A DOT-appointed citizens committee is currently meeting to study a consultant's recommendations for canceling or revising the contract.
We asked I-77 Mobility Partners to comment on the consultant's recommendations. A spokeswoman said they aren't involved in the contract review. She said the company remains focused on construction and "is committed to being a good partner to NCDOT."
Cintra is financing most of the cost itself and says the public-private partnership is widening I-77 "significantly sooner" than if the state waited to do so with existing road funds.
The company also says the toll lanes are still on track to open by year's end. Public hearings still must be scheduled on toll rates.
And what if the I-77 Express Lanes were to be canceled? Charlotte probably can’t escape other tolls. It's how NCDOT wants to finance other road improvements, including Independence Boulevard, I-485 in south Charlotte, and I-77 south of Uptown.
A DOT spokeswoman said Monday that the agency doesn't make the decision whether to implement tolls. That's up to local officials, in this case the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization.