NCDOT's Plan For Toll Lanes On I-485 Getting Mixed Reviews

Jul 26, 2018

More than 200 residents attended a North Carolina Department of Transportation open house Wednesday night in Matthews to learn more about plans for toll lanes on Interstate 485 in south Charlotte. Another 250 people have filled out an online survey or left comments online.

So far, comments on the toll lanes are mixed.

Charles Talley of Charlotte grew up paying tolls around Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. But he doesn't think tolls help get cars off the road.

“It helps in one respect and then again, it brings on more and more cars, because more and more people are deciding that they don't want to carpool, they don't want to share the ride with anyone,” Talley said.

The DOT expects to award a contract in October and start construction next year on one toll lane in both directions on I-485, from I-77 to U.S. 74. The $290 million project would also add one free lane from Providence Road to Rea Road. Construction would begin next year.

One of the broader goals of toll lanes is to get people to think differently about their commutes, and to consider carpooling and public transportation. But as Talley said, it's a hard sell for many commuters.

Many who have offered opinions online so far were steadfastly opposed to the toll lanes. Among the comments:

  • "Please no tolls"
  • "Open the lanes, but not as a toll road"
  • "I do not support toll lanes whatsoever."
  • "This will not help congestion. All it will do, as you say, is offer more reliable travel times using the express lane. The rest of us sit in traffic. Genius."
  • "No toll lanes. We pay plenty for the roads now."

But other commenters were enthusiastic about Insterstate 485 widening.

  • "It’s about darn time. Build it."
  • "Please start the work soon."
  • "Don't take too long."

People who attended Wednesday's NCDOT open house at CPCC in Matthews examined a map of the toll lane project.
Credit David Boraks/ WFAE

Others who attended Wednesday's meeting or left comments online are concerned about noise or traffic from other aspects of the project, such as the new exit at Weddington Road. Another common complaint is that an extra free lane planned on the stretch doesn't go all the way to Independence Boulevard.

NCDOT began holding public meetings on the I-485 project in 2015, and construction was supposed to have started by now. But state officials put a hold on toll-lane projects while they reviewed citizens' concerns about the I-77 Express Lanes north of Charlotte.  

NCDOT now plans to seek construction bids this summer, and to award a contract in October. Construction would start in 2019, and the toll lanes and new free lanes on 485 are supposed be done by 2022.  

WHY ALL THE TOLLS IN CHARLOTTE?

It goes back to a study a decade ago, when state and local officials first began looking at tolls as a way to manage traffic and pay for expanding the region's increasingly congested roads. The idea eventually got the blessing of elected officials on the local transportation planning board (then known as Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, now Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization).

Now, besides I-77 toll lanes north of Charlotte and those on I-485 in south Charlotte, NCDOT is completing work on the Monroe Expressway — a toll road in Union County that's expected to open in November. Also, projects in various stages of planning call for toll lanes on U.S. 74/Independence Boulevard from Charlotte to Matthews, and on I-77 south of uptown.

The U.S. 74 / Independence Boulevard toll lanes are still a ways off. NCDOT says construction might start in 2022.  

DOT officials have said toll lanes are a way to help pay for roads and to manage traffic, but they're quick to say that toll lanes won't necessarily relieve congestion.   

"Well, what we see around the country is express lanes give the user the option to pay a small toll to achieve a reliable travel time," NCDOT engineer Rodger Rochelle said this week. "It's not just about getting from Point A to Point B faster. But it's also about waking up in the morning and knowing, 'I'm running a little late, I need to be there at 10:15, I know that I can choose to use that express lane and I have a reliable travel time.'"

The tolls would rise and fall according to how congested the road is. The busier the road, the more it will cost to use the express lanes. That's supposed to ensure a minimum speed in the toll lanes, and keep them from getting too congested.

NCDOT has also said Express Lanes will improve travel times for commuter buses and carpools, which will get to use the lanes for free.

STATE RUNS I-485 PROJECT

Right now, I-77 is the state's first and only toll project with a private partner. That's not the case with I-485, Rochelle said.

"There's a fundamental difference between these two projects," He said. [The difference is that] the private developer is financing most of that project, almost all of that project on I-77 north of here. Here, these lanes are owned, operated and maintained by the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.".   

Rochelle said building and running the project itself will give the state more flexibility in setting toll rates and maintaining the road. The turnpike authority also controls the state's first toll road — the Triangle Expressway in the Raleigh area — as well as the planned Monroe Expressway in Union County.

WILL I-77 EXPRESS LANES OPEN THIS  YEAR?

Toll lanes on I-77 from Charlotte to Mooresville are still expected to open by the end of year, even though it looks like there's a lot of work left to do.  NCDOT engineer Scott Cole said some things may not be ready, like ramps that connect directly from toll lanes to other highways and side roads.

"All of the direct connects will not open at the end of the year, but [the contractor intends] to open the Express Lanes from one end to the other at the end of the year," Cole said.

Meanwhile, NCDOT is wrapping up a review of its $650 million contract with I-77 Mobility Partners — a unit of Spanish company Cintra — to build and operate the I-77 toll lanes.

A majority of local business and town leaders from the Lake Norman area who sit on an NCDOT local advisory board say they want the state to cancel the contract, and convert one of two planned toll lanes to a free lane. That's estimated to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, so the big question will be whether the DOT can figure out how to pay for any contract changes.  

The picture could become clearer on Aug. 15, when N.C. transportation secretary Jim Trogdon is supposed to meet with the advisory group. (The meeting is at 1:30 p.m. at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce in Cornelius.)

OTHER TOLL PROJECTS

As for other toll projects in the Charlotte area:

  • Monroe Expressway: DOT officials say the expressway will open in November. They recently set the toll rates  — which, unlike other tolls in our area, will be fixed. It's about 14 cents a mile. So it will cost you $2.54 to go around Monroe from one side of Union County to the other.
  • The U.S. 74 / Independence Boulevard toll lanes are farther off. Right now, DOT says construction might start in 2022.
  • I-77 south of uptown.  NCDOT has said it expects to seek a private partner to help finance, build and operate toll lanes on the southern section of I-77 in Charlotte.  

RELATED LINKS

NCDOT's online survey seeking feedback on the I-485 project, https://publicinput.com/I-485-Charlotte 

NCDOT web page on the I-485 project, https://www.ncdot.gov/projects/i-485-express-lanes/