The final stretch of the Interstate 77 Express toll lanes opened over the weekend, but that doesn't mean the $800 million project is finished. Work is continuing and the North Carolina Department of Transportation is still penalizing the contractor for missing the Nov. 1 deadline.
Contractor I-77 Mobility Partners opened the final nine miles of the lanes between Huntersville and uptown Charlotte on Saturday night. But workers are still paving, including eliminating uneven pavement in some spots. The company says that could last into the new year, depending on the weather. Also, one new toll-lane exit won't be done until this weekend, and some noise walls aren't finished.
That means the contractor is still racking up $30,000 a day in fines for missing the deadline - more than a half-million dollars as of Monday. That's on top of about $2.4 million in penalties so far for previous contract violations, such as failing to keep some regular lanes open during rush hours and dump truck accidents that caused traffic jams.
Spokeswoman Jean Leier said I-77 Mobility Partners is discussing the unfinished work and penalties with NCDOT:
"I-77 Mobility Partners has ongoing conversations with NCDOT about the project and the comprehensive agreement, as we have throughout the entire planning and construction process. Some work, like paving and noise wall installation, is ongoing as weather permits. All of these roadway improvements will enhance the driving experience for users of this 26-mile stretch of I-77," Leier said in an email.
NCDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Thompson said Monday the company has the right to appeal any penalties, and has already done so in some cases.
"If they do (appeal), the damages process is put on hold. We go into discussions with them and we see if we can reach an agreement," Thompson said.
Thompson said the penalties are known technically as "liquidated damages." I-77 Mobility Partners doesn't pay NCDOT. Instead, penalties are subtracted from the $95 million that the state of North Carolina has agreed to pay toward the project.
Thompson said some fines already have been reduced or eliminated. For example, a $3.2 million fine over an August incident where a dump truck hit an overpass was trimmed to just $600,000 after the state agreed to charge the company only for the time the road was shut down.
Meanwhile, a 25% discount on toll rates has ended. Now, a full 26-mile one-way trip at rush hour will cost you about $6.50. And on Dec. 1, fixed-rate pricing will end and they'll begin adjusting rates as often as every five minutes.
That's to make sure traffic in the toll lanes maintains a minimum speed of 48 to 56 miles an hour. The more cars use the lanes, the higher the price could go.