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In My Opinion

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NC’s toll scheme for I-77 misguided

Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.

When you are in the business of committing the most boneheaded mistake imaginable, one that will confound generations yet unborn, the worst thing that can happen is for the public to wake up and start thinking about what you’re up to.

I am referring, of course, to this loopy notion of charging motorists to drive on Interstate 77. As the state draws near to signing the final contract with a Spanish firm to build toll lanes, people are beginning to question the wisdom of this zany scheme.

Just last week, state Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, asked for a review of the idea. I hope he gets it – even though the DOT doesn’t appear to be excited about it.

What a review would show is that the state believes it doesn’t have the money – and believes it won’t have the money for the next two decades or so – to add about 10 miles of lanes to I-77 up around Lake Norman to relieve congestion.

Never mind that it is one of the state’s biggest bottlenecks. Never mind it is one of the state’s busiest roadways. Never mind that Lake Norman is poised to explode with growth as the economy improves. Never mind there are gobs of other paving projects planned across the state.

Never mind, never mind, never mind. We don’t have the money, says the state, which has one of the highest fuel taxes in the nation.

But not to worry. What we plan to do, says the state, is to hand your little commuting problem over to a company in Spain that builds tollways around the world. We will let them build some lanes between uptown and Mooresville, and then we’ll let them gouge you for 50 years to pay for it, over and over again.

To help smooth things over, the state will kick in nearly $90 million in construction costs and guarantee the Spaniards a reasonable profit. If the money doesn’t come in, the state will kick in maybe another $75 million over the decades.

No one has said how much the luxury lanes would cost motorists until now – a new set of projections puts the toll at nearly $12 during rush hour. That’s a pretty good chunk of change to pay just to get to work on time.

What is really whacky about the tollway is that it must be designed to ensure maximum frustration. You have to put the price high enough so most people – meaning you grubby cheapskates – won’t be able to afford to drive on the privilege lanes. That way, those with money to burn will be able to zip along on the little-used roadway.

And the road ransom is to go on for 50 years. That means those of you getting your first driver’s license this summer can expect your grandchildren to be stuck in traffic while the toll lanes do their strange thing.

This is not a solution. It’s a monumental disaster being imposed on the region for the next half-century, maybe more.

There’s not enough money to add another lane for all motorists from Exit 23 to Exit 36? Really?

Because the land is already there and owned by the state. Because the need is already there and clearly demonstrated twice a day by the high tides of congestion. Because Lake Norman is quickly becoming one the state’s great economic engines in housing and jobs.

So let’s get behind Sen. Tarte and his desire for an explanation. It should be a good one, providing years of entertainment.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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