In November, the “I-77 Express Lanes” Facebook page announced the project’s launch this way: “Coming soon: less traffic!”
The optional toll lanes will ease traffic, experts say, at least for a while, though critics argue that motorists will ultimately be doomed to congestion. But for now, this much is clear: What’s coming for Mecklenburg-area Interstate 77 drivers is construction – three years of it. The projected completion date is the end of 2018.
Since work began in November, existing lanes from south of Exit 23 in Huntersville to north of Exit 28 in Cornelius have been shifted right and narrowed from 12 to 11 feet until construction is complete. Concrete barriers are going up on the inner shoulders. By the end of 2016, motorists should see work in the entire 26 miles of median, from Charlotte to Mooresville.
One saving grace: No lane closures are planned during the day. Or, as that Facebook page puts it, “We’re working at night so that we don’t make traffic worse.”
When completed, the $655 million project will create two express lanes each way from Charlotte to Cornelius, one each from Cornelius to Mooresville. The idea is that commuters can pay tolls to escape heavy traffic in existing general-purpose lanes. The price will be dynamic – dropping during less congested periods and rising when lanes fill. The express lanes guarantee a speed of 45 mph. They’ll be free to motorcycles, bus riders and carpools of three or more that have a transponder.
The private company building and operating the lanes is I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Spain-based Cintra. We asked the company about the project, construction plans and what motorists should expect in 2016. Here’s an explanation, based in part on emails from Jean Leier, a public relations representative.
Q: Why are there rough stripes on the highway between Exits 23 and 28? Will they be fixed?
A: “As is normal with road construction, when you do have lane shifts and striping is relocated, you will see some texture differences on the pavement,” Leier said. The more irregular conditions have already been fixed, she said. All lanes will be repaved at the end of the project.
Q: Why is construction starting in the Lake Norman area?
A: A major reason: There’s more room in the median than on other parts of I-77. That stretch of I-77 from Huntersville to Davidson is the only Mecklenburg County section of highway that’s never been widened. It’s two lanes in each direction, providing enough median space “to accommodate all of the necessary widening” so that “very little outside widening will need to occur,” Leier said.
Q: Will the Lake Norman area lanes open before the rest of the project is completed?
A: It’s possible, but a decision hasn’t been made.
Q: What’s the next step?
A: Construction is on holiday hiatus until Jan. 4. In January, workers will start clearing the median, removing hundreds of trees and shrubs. That’s where the new lanes will be constructed. By the end of 2016, construction likely will be underway along the entire route.
Q: When and where will lanes be closed at night?
A: For construction updates, follow the I-77 Express Lanes Facebook page or @I77XPRSLanes on Twitter. You can also sign up for updates at www.i77express.com/construction-updates/construction-updates.
Q: How much will it cost to use the optional toll lanes?
A: This has been the biggest unanswered question. The N.C. Department of Transportation now predicts that tolls at peak hours will vary between 14 to 40 cents a mile. That would be between $3.64 and $10.40 for the entire 26 miles, from Charlotte to Mooresville. Most motorists would likely drive only part of the stretch and pay less.
Q: I still can’t picture how these lanes will work.
A: There will be entrance/exit points at the southern end, at Interstate 277 in Charlotte, and the northern end at Exit 36 in Mooresville. If you’re already on I-77, there will be at least six points where you can merge onto and out of the express lanes. Instead of toll booths, an electronic toll collection system monitors where you enter and exit and charges you based on the length of your drive.
You can order a transponder for your car to have your credit card charged or a prepaid account debited. If you don’t have a transponder, the system will photograph your license number and bill by mail. You can now take a virtual ride on the future lanes at www.i77express.com/.
Q: Didn’t these used to be called “managed” lanes?
A: The name keeps changing. At first, planners described the lanes as HOT, which stands for “high-occupancy toll” lane. Then they called them managed lanes, which describes how they manage traffic flow by restricting the number of drivers who use the lanes. Now they’re the I-77 Express Lanes.
Q: Aren’t opponents still fighting this project?
A: Yes. A lawsuit and numerous opponents, including some Lake Norman-area elected officials, are trying to stop the project.
In what appears to be an attempt to put the issue to rest, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory has asked the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization to reaffirm support for the plan. The group has endorsed the express lanes in the past. But if it fails to affirm the plan when it meets Jan. 20, the project could be canceled, and everything you just read here could become moot.
Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271
I-77 Express Lanes
There will be two express lanes each way from Charlotte to Cornelius, starting from Interstate 277. The highway’s current HOV lane will be converted for one of those lanes. One express lane will run each way from Cornelius to Mooresville, at Exit 36.