A standing-room only crowd packed Cornelius Town Hall Monday night to hear a community group explain how the state’s plans for toll lanes on Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Mooresville would worsen congestion and cost far more than adding general purpose lanes would.
The recently formed Widen I-77 group called the planned toll lanes “an imminent calamity,” the worst way to address I-77 congestion and the most expensive option for expanding the interstate -- an approach that would financially burden lake area residents.
Since 2011, the state has planned to convert I-77’s high-occupancy vehicle lanes to toll lanes, saying it doesn't otherwise have the money to expand the interstate.
The lanes would be the first privately operated toll lanes in North Carolina, but Widen I-77 cites a Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization document that concludes toll lanes would do little to reduce congestion on I-77’s general purpose lanes. The planning organization sets Charlotte area road priorities for funding consideration by the state.
The project calls for adding two toll lanes on both northbound and southbound I-77 between the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. Cars with at least three occupants would avoid a toll to use the lanes.
One toll lane in each direction would continue between Exit 28 and Exit 36. The causeways over Lake Norman aren't wide enough to accommodate two high-occupancy toll lanes in each direction north of Exit 28, former DOT engineer Barry Moose has said.
Adding general purpose lanes or high occupancy vehicle lanes would address lake area congestion and cost about $130 million, the group’s research shows. HOT lanes would cost at least $542 million and not solve congestion, the group concluded.
“(Toll lanes) will cost drivers that routinely use I-77 several hundred dollars more per month,” the group said in a two-page information sheet made available to the estimated 100 people attending Monday’s meeting.. “These HOT lanes have justly earned the nickname ‘Lexus Lanes.’ HOT lanes further separate the rich from the poor,”
The group said HOT lanes would drain at least $10 million from the lake area economy each year. “Tolls paid to commute are not available for local government or consumer spending,” the group said. “Congestion and toll roads send a signal to developers and businesses that the region is unwilling to invest in basic infrastructure. Transportation costs go up and business suffers. When business suffers, the community suffers. HOT lanes are double taxation.”
On Jan. 3, a Cornelius advisory board urged the state to consider all options - not only tolls - to pay for expanding Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Mooresville.
"It is our belief that forcing Lake Norman area motorists to pay a toll to use the new lanes would impose additional financial burdens on our area residents, " the Cornelius Transportation Advisory Board said in a resolution passed 6-0.
Based on data it collected, the panel said toll lanes also wouldn't solve I-77 congestion.
The board instead declared its unanimous support of a recent resolution by Cornelius commissioner Dave Gilroy that urges the Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission to consider all options for more lanes between Exit 23 in Huntersville and Exit 36 in Mooresville, including general purpose lanes.
The commission includes elected officials and town managers from Huntersville, Davidson, Cornelius and Mooresville and makes recommendations on lake area road priorities to the state Department of Transportation.
The state is scheduled to select a company in August to build and operate the toll lanes. Construction is set to begin in summer 2014, with some segments opening in 2016, state transportation officials have said.
“This is upon us, and we need to act quickly,” Kurt Naas of Widen I-77 told the crowd.
Widen I-77 urged lake area elected officials to convene an ad hoc committee to consider alternative solutions to I-77 congestion and to convince the state Department of Transportation “to put the breaks on until all alternatives are vetted.”
Numerous residents spoke against the toll lanes Monday night.
“I hope you build general purpose lanes and take it out of the (Charlotte) light rail budget,” Jay Privette of Charlotte said to applause.
Huntersville commissioner Ron Julian told the crowd that the toll lane concept “is ludicrous” and that he supports general purpose lanes.
Cornelius Mayor Lynette Rinker, meanwhile, told the crowd she was “misfairly characterized” on the Widen I-77 website as supporting toll lanes. She said she’s in the “listening phase” and neither supports nor opposes such lanes. “We will take this back to MUMPO,” she said.
DOT Division Engineer Louis Mitchell told the crowd that gas tax revenues have fallen as vehicles have become more fuel efficient, prompting the state to look to alternative funding sources for adding lanes to interstates.
But, he said, “We at DOT are not going to force any project on this region that MUMPO doesn’t endorse, and your elected officials have input into this choice.”
DOT spokesman Steve Abbott told the Observer recently the state intends to have another public meeting on the project before summer. “No final alternative plan has been selected, and we have not finalized any document that sets everything in stone as yet,” he said.
Marusak: 704-987-3670; on Twitter @ jmarusak
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email firstname.lastname@example.org to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less