Lake Norman’s main street should be named Agony Alley, a 15-mile ribbon of benumbing clogs and stupefying jams stretching from Huntersville to Mooresville. Bisecting one of the fastest-growing regions in the southeast, Interstate 77 north of Charlotte is oddly, ominously and officially immune from highway remedies evident in every other urban corridor of North Carolina – widening the bottleneck with additional unrestricted lanes.
Traffic hassles are part of the fabric of modern life, but in Lake Norman any mention of I-77 usually comes with an injurious sneer, a seething contempt. Its daily burden of about 100,000 vehicles so outstrips its capacity that miles-long traffic tie-ups occur daily, capriciously, long past normal rush hours and even on weekends.
If it were a human artery, the cardiologist would order a stent – and stat – for its constricted borders, but some malevolent enchantment is at work on this peculiar byway, a Sleeping Beauty spell cast nowhere else.
No, the region’s commuters have been told repeatedly, the highway simply does not qualify for the widening measures lavished on Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Raleigh, Salisbury and a dozen other places. Though it may be the No. 1 bottleneck in the state, indeed, the worst heavy trucking route in the southeast and the Great Lakes, adding unrestricted lanes would be decades in the future.
Plopping pricey toll lanes beside the sluggish road was the solution imposed by planners. If the whiny people in Lake Norman want a pleasant ride to Charlotte and back, they reasoned, they can bloody well pay for it. Every day. For 50 years.
Now a $100,000 consultant’s study commissioned after the tsunami of protests the decision unleashed provides interesting insights into the black magic of Agony Alley.
Highway planners know that adding lanes is not a good solution because they eventually just silt up with more traffic, the study says. So with the Lake Norman problem, the answer came not in fixing the jam but rather ensuring that there was “travel time reliability” between the lake and the city.
This means you can buy your way into motorist paradise while enjoying a five-decade traffic jam to your right. To ensure that the express lanes don’t clog, tolls are adjusted to discourage overuse. How much? Can’t say. Whatever the traffic will bear.
Mercator Advisors, authors of the report, also say it’s too difficult to calculate exactly how much it would cost to buy out the toll vendor building the project. A good guess, the consultants indicate, is something north of $300 million. So that is never going to happen.
One idea Mercator recommends the state consider is opening the shoulder of the road in some areas, like north of Exit 23, during rush hours. This works other places. Of course, the state will have to pay the toll vendor for lost business.
Finally, the report acknowledges that there’s lots of residual anger in the Lake Norman area over the project. People there don’t think of being toll guinea pigs as a win-win. They lean more toward the notion of highway robbery.
Constant growth puts increasing demands on our highway networks. Our fuel tax of 34.3 cents per gallon isn’t getting the job done.
No one in Raleigh wants to mention tax increases, but it is vital we address this shortfall and upgrade our highway system at large.
Another nickel on the gas tax is the solution, and it is a simple, relatively painless one. Otherwise, the Curse of Agony Alley may spread to new frontiers.