Living Here Guide

Toll lanes, new light-rail are area’s big transportation projects

rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

If you have just moved to Charlotte, get ready for an intense debate about whether the state should build express toll lanes on its interstate highways.

The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to build new toll lanes on Interstate 77 in north Mecklenburg, which is the most congested section of highway in the Charlotte region.

The state’s plan has sparked opposition from a number of residents, and concern from towns along the route.

Though much of the focus is on I-77, the DOT also plans to build new toll lanes on Independence Boulevard and Interstate 485 in south Charlotte and – in the next decade – to rebuild I-77 in south Charlotte with as many as two toll lanes in each direction.

The toll lanes have been used in large cities, such as Miami, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and San Diego.

Charlotte would be one of the smallest cities to have the express lanes.

The idea behind the lanes is that, in exchange for a toll, motorists are guaranteed to be able to travel in the lanes for 45 mph. If they don’t want to pay, they can choose instead to travel in the free, general-purpose lanes that will remain.

The upside: If you are willing to pay, you will get home at a predictable time.

But it’s unclear how much the new toll lanes will relieve congestion in the free lanes. And residents are concerned about a provision in the state’s contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, the private developer, that makes it difficult for the state to build new lanes on the highway for the next 50 years.

The I-77 project could open in 2019.

The DOT is also planning to add an express toll lane on I-485 in south Charlotte, from I-77 to U.S. 74. That could open in 2019.

The first toll lane project could be on Independence Boulevard, or U.S. 74, from uptown to just past the interchange with Albemarle Road. That could open in 2017, and the DOT has said the toll lane could cost 26 cents a mile during rush hour.

Transit

The city of Charlotte is also extending its light-rail line by about 9 miles to UNC Charlotte. That’s a $1.1 billion project.

The Lynx Blue Line, which opened in 2007, today runs from I-485 in south Charlotte to uptown. The extension will mostly follow North Tryon Street to UNCC. The current cost of a one-way train ticket is $2.20, but that will likely rise by the time the extension opens in 2017.

The Charlotte Area Transit System also offers monthly passes that make rides less expensive.

The existing Blue Line is popular among uptown workers who don’t want to pay monthly parking fees in the center city. Parking at the stations along the line is free.

CATS also has express buses from the suburbs into uptown.

Charlotte also opened a small, 1.5-mile streetcar line that runs from uptown to the Elizabeth neighborhood. The city wants to expand the streetcar into a 10-mile line, but that won’t happen for another decade at least.

Airport

Charlotte Douglas Airport has recently finished a number of improvements – but has plans to bring back the construction cranes with hundreds of millions of dollars in new projects.

Last year, the airport opened two new hourly parking decks near the terminal, as well as a new entrance road from Interstate 85.

Later this year, the airport will start building a new, wider loop road in front of the terminal. That road is used to drop off passengers and pick them up on the arrivals level.

After that is finished, the airport will tear down the existing roadway and expand the terminal.

Steve is the Observer’s Charlotte city government reporter

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