Leaders of a Lake Norman area economic development group are backing the state’s plans to add toll lanes to Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Mooresville.
So far, the proposed toll lanes have drawn mainly opposition; this is the first time a prominent group has publicly supported the plan. The group – the nonprofit Lake Norman Regional Economic Development Corp. – says toll lanes are the most realistic approach to widening I-77, which is needed for development of Lake Norman.
“When you talk to corporations, they ask questions about a region’s plans for growth,” said Jerry Broadway, executive director of the Lake Norman EDC. “They also ask about access to airports and how to ensure goods and services get to market. Will it cost the area to not have managed (toll) lanes? I believe it would.”
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. Without tolls, I-77’s widening would take many more years, officials said.
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.
But the toll-lane project has met resistance from a lake area community group called Widen I-77 and a Cornelius advisory board that in early January urged the state to consider all options – not only tolls – to pay for expanding the interstate.
“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.
The lanes would be the first privately operated toll lanes in North Carolina, but Widen I-77 cites a state document that concludes toll lanes would do little to reduce congestion on I-77’s general-purpose lanes.
Toll lanes also would be more expensive than general-purpose lanes, in part because of the $2 million a year needed to operate them, Charlotte business owner Kurt Naas has said. Naas leads Widen I-77 and is a member of the Cornelius Transportation Advisory Board. The private contractor also would expect a profit from managing the lanes, he said.
But leaders of the Lake Norman Regional economic development group said it’s imperative that I-77 be widened as soon as possible. Since its inception in 2003, the group says, it has attracted about $218 million in new capital investment and at least 1,700 jobs to Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson.
“We simply cannot wait any longer for additional lanes on I-77,” Mike Griffin, chairman of the Huntersville-based group’s board of directors, said in a statement. “We need to find a solution now and make sure the state puts the I-77 widening money in our control when it is appropriated years from now. We should then appropriate this money for additional projects within our region that we see (as) necessary to accommodate existing and future growth.”
“Moving forward now is critical,” Wayne Hoffman, president of Huntersville-based Forbo Siegling LLC said in the statement. “Reliance on traditional funding models will only cause us to fall backward at an accelerating rate. The state is justified in looking at alternative funding models to accelerate the I-77 solution.”
The project calls for adding two toll lanes on 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.
Toll rates would vary throughout the day depending on traffic volume, though no rates have been proposed. No toll booths will be required; drivers will pay electronically. Cameras would spot whether toll-lane drivers had enough occupants to avoid a toll.
DOT spokesman Steve Abbott has told the Observer that the state intends to have another public meeting on the project before summer.