Tolls and transit.
Those are the two main issues facing the Charlotte region as it tries to keep up with a surge of new residents.
The most controversial toll project is currently under construction. It would add new express toll lanes to Interstate 77 in north Mecklenburg, perhaps the most congested stretch of highway in the state.
The N.C. Department of Transportation has partnered with a private firm to build the toll lanes, which will run from uptown to Mooresville. Motorists will still be able to use the existing lanes for free, but the price of the new lanes will vary depending on traffic.
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The goal of the express lanes is to keep traffic moving at least 45 mph. If too many commuters try and use the express lanes and traffic slows, the price of the toll will rise.
When the lanes open in 2019, it’s unknown how much a rush-hour trip from uptown to Davidson will cost. It could be $3 – or $8.
Some residents have fought the toll lanes intensely. They have argued the highway, which has only two lanes in each direction through Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville, should be widened without tolls.
But a subsidiary of Cintra, a Madrid, Spain-based company, has already started construction.
The DOT has said it doesn’t have enough money to add new lanes to reduce congestion. It also has turned to tolls because the state believes it’s the best long-term solution for managing congestion.
The DOT has plans to build express toll lanes on other highways.
One project is to convert the middle lanes of Independence Boulevard that are currently used as a bus lane into express toll lanes.
Another project is to build new express toll lanes on Interstate 485 in south Charlotte. The lanes would extend from I-77 to U.S. 74.
Both projects are scheduled to begin construction next year. Like the I-77 toll lane project, the price of toll will depend based on the traffic. The DOT doesn’t know how much that will cost.
The state is also building the 20-mile Monroe Expressway, which will bypass the congested U.S. 74 in Union County. That highway will also be tolled. There will be no free lanes on the expressway.
While the DOT looks to toll roads and toll lanes, the city of Charlotte is investing heavily in transit.
The Charlotte Area Transit System is scheduled to open in the summer of 2017 an extension of the Lynx Blue Line, a light-rail line that opened in 2007.
The $1.1 billion extension will run from uptown to UNC Charlotte. It will complete the Blue Line, and allow people to take rail transit from the I-485/South Boulevard station in south Charlotte to UNC Charlotte, a 20-mile trip. (CATS originally wanted the Blue Line Extension to reach I-485 in northeast Charlotte, but had to remove that last leg because it didn’t have enough money.)
Last summer, the city opened a short 1.5-mile streetcar line in uptown. The city plans to build another 2.5 miles of streetcar track in the next three years, which will be part of a larger 10-mile streetcar line that would run from Beatties Ford Road to the site of the old Eastland Mall in east Charlotte.
CATS also wants to build rapid transit near or along Independence Boulevard and a commuter train to Lake Norman. The transit system doesn’t have money for either project, and it’s possible local officials could begin discussing in 2017 a new tax to raise money for transit.
Steve Harrison covers transportation issues for the Observer.