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Free market solution to congestion on I-77

A popular TV commercial runs constantly these days for smartphone service. “It’s not complicated,” the ad says. “Faster is better.”

The same could be said for North Carolina’s plans to widen Interstate 77 by adding toll lanes in each direction between Charlotte and Mooresville. Faster is better when it comes to commuting. And faster is better when it comes to widening I-77.

Only a person learning a foreign language on CDs could find value in the stop-and-go commute up and down I-77 each day. Doing nothing is a bad option.

Nobody likes to pay tolls, and several dozen Lake Norman residents vocally object to the plan. North Carolina’s Department of Transportation, though, says it would be 25 years or so before I-77 would be widened with traditional funding sources. By adding toll lanes, construction could start next year.

Ideally, the state would add general use lanes, and soon. But North Carolina’s transportation needs demand billions more than the state will have in coming years. Toll lanes are a superior answer to sitting idle while the region’s growth clogs the interstate more each year.

Another essential fact that makes the toll lanes worth doing: People who use the regular lanes now for free can continue to do so. Nothing would change for them.

The toll lanes just offer drivers a choice. Those who want to go faster would have a way to do that. This free-market solution, supported by the Republican legislators who represent much of the area, is preferable to higher taxes. And every driver who opts for the toll lanes is out of the other lanes. If congestion doesn’t improve, it would at least not get worse so quickly.

Many states increasingly struggle with the same problem: Transportation needs that far outstrip money to pay for them. Jim Trogdon, chief operating officer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, says the state’s interstates will need $28 billion for expansions in the next 20 years or so. At the same time, the gas tax brings in far less than needed, despite being among the 10 highest in the nation.

Reliance on the gas tax will become an even bigger problem as high gas prices and fuel-efficient cars cut the amount of gas drivers buy. More creative financing will be needed, and tolls can be one solution – especially tolls like those proposed for I-77, which pay for new lanes while keeping existing general use lanes free.

Current users of the HOV lane, it should be noted, could be hurt by the proposal now being considered. Vehicles with two people can use the HOV lane now; under this plan, only cars with three or more people could avoid the toll on the fast lanes. That might push some of those cars into the general use lanes, adding to congestion there.

Tolls are not a new idea in North Carolina. In 2009, the 21st Century Transportation Committee, established by the legislature to study the state’s needs and ways to pay for them, recommended a toll on I-77 from the S.C. border all the way to Statesville.

In the end, even new toll lanes are a Band-Aid solution. As this region grows, that growth needs to be managed in a smarter way that encourages shorter, and quicker, commutes.

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