A North Carolina Department of Transportation consultant is exploring several ways to ease outrage over the Interstate 77 toll lane project, including letting carpools with only two people use the lanes for free and converting some of the planned toll lanes into free lanes.
Philadelphia-based Mercator Advisors is reviewing the controversial project, which is scheduled to be finished next year. The consultant gave a preliminary report to the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization Wednesday night, but the group hasn’t yet determined how much various changes to the contract would cost.
The Spanish company Cintra is building two express toll lanes in each direction between uptown and exit 28 in Cornelius. Between Cornelius and Exit 36 in Mooresville, there will be one express lane added in each direction.
The lanes will give motorists a guaranteed travel speed of 45 mph, though they will have to pay a toll. Cintra will set the toll, which will vary throughout the day, based on demand. The company is free to charge whatever it wants.
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Jim Taylor of Mercator said it is reviewing a number of ways to change the contract with Cintra, which lasts 50 years. But he said any change to the contract won’t be free.
“All of these have costs associated with them,” he said.
One option is to terminate the entire agreement with Cintra. The NCDOT, under former Gov. Pat McCrory, hired an auditor who said that could cost $300 million.
Taylor did not give a detailed answer of how much a full buyout might cost. But he suggested it would be less than McCrory’s DOT had suggested. He said the buyout cost would likely equal the amount of money that Cintra has spent so far on the lanes, which he said was $170 million as of December 2016.
There are other options:
▪ Change the contract so some parts of the new lanes would remain free, either for the entire length of the contract or for a certain amount of time. That would cost Cintra money, and would likely cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
Some Lake Norman residents have said they want the express toll lanes over the Lake Norman causeway to be free.
Kurt Nass, a leader of the anti-toll lane group Widen I-77, said he would support a plan to add a free lane in each direction from uptown to Iredell County. If the state adds a toll lane in addition to the free lane, that’s OK, he said.
“Our group is called Widen I-77,” he said. “That’s what we want.”
One challenge to converting the toll lanes to general-purpose lanes is that the toll lanes aren’t being built strong enough to handle trucks. Taylor said DOT might have to change course during construction this year, adding more concrete or asphalt to make the lanes strong enough to handle large trucks.
▪ Create a discount program for frequent users.
▪ Allow vehicles with two or more people to use the toll lanes for free. The Cintra contract only allows vehicles with three or more people to use the express lanes for free. Vehicles with two or more people could use the existing carpool lanes on I-77.
▪ Eliminate or change the part of Cintra’s contract that calls for the company to be compensated for the construction of “unplanned revenue impacting facilities.” That means that DOT can’t build a new free lane on Interstate 77 for the life of the contract – 50 years – without compensating Cintra for lost toll revenue.
Critics of the project have warned that only having two general-purpose lanes and one express toll lane in each direction will create a traffic nightmare in 10 years, not to mention 50 years.
Mercator will also study whether the shoulders could be strengthened so they could be used during peak times.
Mercator plans to present a draft of its final report to the Charlotte Transportation Regional Planning Organization in August. Taylor said the amount of public money in the I-77 project is similar to the amount of taxpayer funding in other public-private partnerships that have built toll lanes nationwide.
Taylor did criticize how the state sold the public on the toll lanes earlier this decade.
“We didn’t see evidence of a way (the DOT) explained why (the public-private partnership) is about more than just financing,” he said.
It’s unclear what, if anything, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s DOT will do with the report. During last year’s election, Cooper said he opposed the project, and some local politicians credit Cooper’s small victory over McCrory to anger over the toll lanes.