NC promised fixes to make I-77 toll lanes better. Leaders say it’s taking too long.

Construction for I-77 toll lanes is still ongoing

The project was supposed to be complete by the end of 2018, but portions may not open until next year.
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The project was supposed to be complete by the end of 2018, but portions may not open until next year.

It’s not just the pace of construction on Interstate 77 toll lanes that has some local leaders upset — they also think the state should move faster on proposed fixes to make using the interstate easier when the new lanes open.

A local N.C. Department of Transportation advisory group created to study the toll lanes and look for solutions to the deeply unpopular project met last week at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. They’ve been meeting for over a year, and members — who include staunch toll lane opponents — were told in August that the NCDOT was developing a series of steps to improve the 26-mile project.

But last Wednesday’s meeting left the local advisory group frustrated with the pace of the work. They were told the NCDOT plans to conclude negotiations with the private company that’s building and operating the toll lanes by this spring, and will present possible changes to the legislature in the summer. The legislature would then be required to approve any changes to the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Spanish infrastructure firm Cintra, which is building the toll lanes and will collect revenue for 50 years.

Possible changes include opening the shoulders to traffic during peak congestion, coming up with a frequent user rebate and finding a way to make the pricing structure more transparent as the cost of tolls varies throughout the day.

Local advisory group members had been expecting to hear details on what the state will do, and how it will eventually move toward Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon’s goal of buying I-77 Mobility Partners out of its contract and putting the toll lanes entirely under public control. Instead, those details could come at the advisory group’s next meeting in late summer or early fall.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” said Kurt Naas, a Cornelius commissioner and long-time toll opponent, after the meeting. “They basically presented the same thing that happened in August. What’s been going on the last six months? We don’t have costs, we don’t have time frames, we don’t have anything.”

Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham agreed with his assessment.

“It was disappointing and a waste of time,” she said. “We were appreciative we were having a meeting and being heard, but in reality nothing changed.”

The toll lanes had been expected to open by the end of 2018. But the opening was pushed back months, which the state attributed to additional construction beyond the original scope, such as new “direct connect” bridges that would allow access to and from the lanes without crossing traffic.

I-77 toll lane construction continues at I-277 north of uptown Charlotte. The 26-mile project from Mooresville to uptown Charlotte was supposed to finish late this year, but work will carry into 2019, state highway officials said. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Now, I-77 Mobility Partners expects to open the northern part of the toll lanes — roughly from I-485 to Mooresville — by the spring. The rest of the $670 million project, from uptown to I-485, should be open by the end of October.

Cintra and its investors are paying for most of the cost to build the toll lanes. They’ll collect the revenue when the new roadway opens. Tolls will vary based on congestion, with the goal of a minimum 45 mph speed at all times for toll lane users. Drivers will pay by the segment, and I-77 Mobility Partners has said driving the whole length will cost up to $6.55 when the lanes open and will increase to a maximum of $9.40 after the first six months.

Short- and medium-term solutions the NCDOT is considering include:

Finding some way to “increase transparency” around how tolls are set.

Letting small and medium trucks use the toll lanes to relieve congestion in the free lanes.

Opening up the shoulder during peak traffic times to provide another free lane.

Establishing a program to give frequent users a rebate.

The goal is to make traveling the stretch of interstate more palatable for drivers who have balked at years of construction, the prospect of variable tolls and anger at not getting more free lanes.

NCDOT spokeswoman Carly Olexik said because the state is in talks with I-77 Mobility Partners, they can’t comment on the status of negotiations. But she pointed out that the state has already taken some steps, like moving to collect and manage all customer data so the private company won’t have access to driver’s information. That’s meant to improve customer service and accountability.

“Since Secretary Trogdon announced the action plan in August, we’ve continued taking actions,” she said. “We’re working towards implementing peak period shoulder usage...We’re taking the feedback we received from the group and using it to shape these plans.”

Even if the state moves toward buying out I-77 Mobility Partners, it’s unclear where the money would come from. The NCDOT has said that such expenditures would have to be scored using the state’s transportation funding formula, and wouldn’t qualify. Toll lane opponents want the highway exempted from the funding formula, but there’s no push for that evident in the legislature.

Pat Ryan, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, said the legislature would wait for N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s office to outline a plan.

“We understand the concerns here, but can’t comment on hypothetical solutions,” said Ryan.

Toll lane advisory group members said with the delayed project’s opening fast approaching, they fear no long-term solutions are on the horizon.

“We’re running out of time,” said John Hettwer, representative from the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. “I still see a lot of questions.”

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Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.