Toll lanes have been under construction for nearly four years on I-77 from Charlotte to the Lake Norman area. Over the weekend, the northern 15 miles of the project opened to traffic. Monday was the first weekday rush hour with the lanes. Some drivers took advantage of the faster commute, while toll lane opponents continued to fume about the whole idea. WFAE's "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn talked about all this with WFAE reporter David Boraks, who has been covering the project since the planning stages.
GLENN: David, what's open now and how has it gone so far?
BORAKS: The opening includes toll lanes in both directions between Exit 36 in Mooresville and Hambright Road in Huntersville, just north of I-485. The other 11 miles to Charlotte are still under construction.
The lanes opened Saturday morning and I-77 Express officials reported the first driver began using the lanes around 9 a.m. The company said they saw a "steady increase in cars" after that.
I talked to a few commuters, and it seems like people are trying out the toll lanes - even though traffic today was unusually light.
GLENN: Have you had a chance to drive the toll lanes?
BORAKS: I actually used them Saturday heading north, to avoid the usual weekend afternoon traffic jam through Huntersville and Cornelius. I was in a group of seven cars that all steered out of the slowed traffic and into the lanes. We sailed around the traffic jam. Nothing like passing stopped traffic. It cost me $1.05 to go two segments from Huntersville to Cornelius.
By the way, the speed limit in the toll lanes is 70 miles an hour - compared with 65 in the free lanes. And we're hearing stories about people going a lot faster than that.
GLENN: So who can use the lanes?
BORAKS: They're open to passenger vehicles, buses and motorcycles. Tractor-trailers can't use them - although someone posted a photo on Facebook of a truck in the lanes. Tolls are charged electronically using a transponder. You can get those online or at the NC Quick Pass store off Harris Boulevard.
And here's a key point - you can ride free if you have three people in the car, but you'll need a transponder.
If you don't have a transponder, the North Carolina Turnpike Authority will snap a photo of your license plate and send you a bill in the mail. But warning - that will cost you 35% more.
GLENN: How much does it cost?
BORAKS: Tolls are discounted right now - because the project isn't finished. If you ride all 15 miles of the open lanes from Mooresville to Huntersville, it will cost $3.35 at rush hour, or $1.95 off-peak and weekends. Tolls will be less if you travel a shorter distance.
After six months, tolls will rise, and they'll go up and down continuously according to the amount of traffic in the toll lane. The more traffic, the higher they'll go. I-77 Express says a ride on all 26 miles at rush hour will cost about double what they're charging now.
GLENN: What are people saying about the opening? What have you heard?
BORAKS: As you know, there's been loud opposition to the toll lanes, especially in the Lake Norman area. Kurt Naas is a Cornelius town board member who leads the anti-toll group Widen I-77. He took note of the opening in a blog post Saturday headlined: "Our 50-year nightmare begins today." He was referring there to the company's 50-year contract to manage the lanes.
Naas said the project opened despite years of protests, petition drives and opposition from public officials. He predicts officials will paint a rosy picture of financial success, but questions whether the project will actually succeed, from a business standpoint.
Meanwhile, social media sites are hopping with comments. Some people posted photos of traffic jams in the free lanes, and no users in the toll lanes.
Some commenters vow never to use the lanes, hoping that they can help bring about bankruptcy for the contractor. And then, there are people suggesting anti-toll guerrilla tactics such as -
- "Toll shaming" - posting photos of cars that DO use the lanes,
- Blocking toll lane drivers from merging back into the regular lanes,
- Or blacking out your license plate so the automated toll collection system can't read it - and you can ride for free. Not sure how legal that would be.
We've also seen anti-toll posts from politicians who are campaigning right now - trying to piggyback on all that that anger.
But there've also been calmer voices in the social media threads, saying taking photos is dangerous and urging angry commenters to go for a walk, enjoy life and get over it.
GLENN: There's been a lot of complaints about the toll lanes and NCDOT has talked about changing the contract. What's the status of those proposals?
BORAKS: An advisory group of civic and business leaders in the Lake Norman area held a series of meetings last year to discuss possible changes. They include the idea of letting rush hour commuters use the highway shoulders, especially to go shorter distances. I asked CEO Javier Tamargo if that's happening. He said:
TAMARGO: We have not had any conversations with the Department of Transportation about the shoulder initiative that has been released recently. We are having an open conversation about some of the improvements to the project. We have been doing that for the full extent of the contract and will continue.
BORAKS: Tamargo also says they're not talking to NCDOT about other proposed changes, such as converting one toll lane to a free lane. Any improvements to the contract, as he calls them, are routine things like how the company communicates rate changes.
[UPDATE: A spokeswoman for the NCDOT and NC Turnpike Authority said Monday the agency is studying the feasibility, environmental impacts and possible costs of using the highway shoulders and other changes. She said no negotiations will begin until all that research is finished and local and state officials decide whether to proceed.]
GLENN: And when will the rest of the project be finished?
BORAKS: Tamargo told me they hope to open the the remaining 11 miles from Huntersville to Charlotte in September or October. The contract gives them until Nov. 1.