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New questions about I-77 tolls

WRECK_01
Davie Hinshaw - dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
Inbound Interstate 77 from the LaSalle Street bridge where a multi-vehicle wreck slowed traffic to a crawl early June 06, 2014.

Adding toll lanes to pay for widening Interstate 77 was never the perfect highway funding idea. It was a short-term solution to a long-term transportation problem, and it kicked two-passenger vehicles out of the HOV lanes, negating at least some of the environmental and traffic benefits that brought the lanes in the first place.

Still, adding toll lanes was a palatable way to get work started on I-77 next year, as opposed to in 25 years through traditional funding sources. It seemed the best of the so-so options the state had.

But now, some investigative work from a local citizens group has raised important questions about how much drivers might have to pay to use those lanes – and in turn, how realistic resulting revenue projections might be.

The group, Widen I-77, obtained traffic and revenue estimates from an infrastructure consultant, plus memorandums sent to state lawmakers on the I-77 toll lanes. The consultant, Stantec, predicted a one-way morning trip from Mooresville to Charlotte would initially cost $9.05 in the toll lanes. The return commute would cost $11.75. A shorter commute, from Huntersville to Charlotte and back, would cost drivers a stout $9.44 in the toll lanes. By 2035, all those costs would more than double.

It’s important to remember that these charges would be optional. If drivers don’t want to pay for a smoother commute, they could choose to do the accelerator/brake tap dance in the general use lanes. But if the cost of using the toll lanes is prohibitive, then more people will choose the slower route. That means total toll payments, which would contribute to widening I-77, will come nowhere close to the estimated $13 billion over 50 years.

N.C. DOT spokeswoman Jennifer Thompson told the editorial board Monday that motorists would pay only about $2 a trip using toll lanes, but that’s an average for all trips, including much shorter commutes. A more precise answer would have to come from Cintra, the company the state selected in April to build and run the toll lanes. Thompson says Cintra isn’t required to reveal that proprietary bid information to the public until the state signs its contract. Thompson doesn’t know if state lawmakers even have that information.

Other unanswered questions: How do toll and revenue estimates compare to what other states have realized with similar lanes? And importantly, how much will the toll lanes relieve congestion? The Stantec report estimates that in 2035, a Mooresville-Charlotte morning commute in the general use lanes will nearly double, although it’s unclear if the widening of I-77 is factored in that estimate.

Cornelius commissioner John Bradford, a supporter of exploring toll lanes on I-77, told the Observer that the state might want to pause the Cintra contract in light of the citizen’s group’s report. We agree. Using toll lanes to get I-77 widened is still a valid concept, but the state needs to tap the brakes until Cintra reveals more to all of us about the road ahead.

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