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Don’t like I-77 tolls? Expect more to come, past DOT chair warns.

I-77 toll lane construction ramps up near uptown

Construction is underway way near near uptown between the I-85/I-77 and I-277-Brookshire Freeway/I-77 interchanges all part of the I-77 toll lanes project.
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Construction is underway way near near uptown between the I-85/I-77 and I-277-Brookshire Freeway/I-77 interchanges all part of the I-77 toll lanes project.

Ned Curran has been involved in Charlotte transportation for more than a decade. Former Gov. Pat McCrory appointed him to chair the N.C. Department of Transportation board, which he headed from 2013-2016.

Before becoming DOT chairman, Curran led a group called the Committee of 21, which supported light rail but said the region needed to invest more in highway capacity. For many local residents, his time at DOT will be remembered for his defense of the Interstate 77 toll lanes under construction in north Mecklenburg – a controversial project that angers many commuters.

Curran was chief executive of The Bissell Companies, which recently sold the Ballantyne Corporate Park to New York-based Northwood Investors for $1.2 billion – the largest real estate deal in the city’s history. Curran is now president of Northwood’s Charlotte office.

Curran spoke by phone to the Observer about a number of topics: The Charlotte Area Transit System’s 2030 transit plan, the toll lanes and future technology such as self-driving cars and drones.

Q: CATS wants to build a rail line to the airport, a train to Matthews and a train to Lake Norman. Chief executive John Lewis has estimated it would cost between $5 billion and $7 billion. Is it a good idea?

A: That’s a great question. I do applaud the CATS chief for being imaginative and challenging all of us to think like that. I just really struggle with what I see are significant potential disruptors to our mobility choices – ride-sharing, autonomous vehicles, the virtual workplace. These can have a dramatic impact on our choices of mobility. With these very expensive fixed rail systems we need to be thoughtful. They are appealing for land use, and development patterns. But is the best use of our money?

Q: To reach the airport, what’s the best option? What’s the worst?

A: The streetcar is not a good option for people who want to catch a flight. If there is a wreck in front of the streetcar, it doesn’t offer the same advantage as light rail does. You don’t have a high reliability factor. Nor does the streetcar offer a better alternative than a car service or Uber.

Q: What is better?

A: I would try to mimic the freight line that runs out to the multi-modal facility (at the airport). You already have track there and a way to get to the airport. That is not a light rail option. That would be a commuter rail option. It would allow us to pull ridership from the rail line from Raleigh and Salisbury and Gaston to the Charlotte airport.

Q: Would people uptown consistently take a train to the airport?

A: (An airport train from uptown) could be competitive if the airport was farther from the center city, but it’s not. You can just grab a car and be there. We are blessed to have the airport in close proximity to the center. But it’s counter productive to say we want a train to the airport. Will you attract that much ridership?

Q: Would the I-77 toll lane project have been better received had the DOT built one free, general-purpose lane all the way to Lake Norman instead of two new toll lanes?

A: Everyone would take that. But would it fit the economic model for the public private partnership to invest and their return on investment? If you expand the amount of free lanes, that impacts (the developer’s) model.

Q: Do you envision toll lanes being added to other highways like I-85 or U.S. 16?

A: I do. The more you see vehicles being fuel efficient (and paying less in gas tax) and until we can implement alternative funding, tolling will have to be part of the solution. That’s been identified in studies in N.C. for two decades.

Q: The Garden Parkway in Gaston County, and now the Catawba Crossings project (a bridge across the Catawba River near the airport), have struggled to get a good score in DOT rankings. Is a new bridge across the Catawba important enough for local governments to consider paying for the bridge themselves?

A: I do think the region needs to think about it. As housing choices evolve, we should be looking at additional ways to get across the river. The toll was one way of trying to be creative of trying to accelerate something that was ahead of its time. We have to keep thinking about it. It’s time will come eventually.

Q: Do you think there will ever be another large-scale highway project in Charlotte like the outerbelt or the Monroe Expressway – or will the cost and environmental impact be too great? I’m thinking about a second outerbelt around the city, something people have discussed for years.

A: What’s our responsibility to get folks connected to work centers? When we find communities that are 30 and 40 miles from the urban areas and they are having trouble with their local economies, and their citizens are gravitating towards urban areas, what are our obligations? Whether it’s another loop road, we really need to find a way to get them more access into the city. There aren’t jobs where they are.

Q: What was your biggest accomplishment leading the DOT board?

A: It’s by far and away the (Strategic Transportation Investments) law. We moved away from the equity formula and went to a way to evaluate projects on the basis of safety and congestion. Politics was taken out of it. Someone on board, or a governor, can’t say, ‘Let’s put a road here.’

Q: Will the law stay intact? Some rural areas like the old formula better.

A: There are folks who think it’s not fair, but there are more folks who think it’s fair because it’s based on data. The first time we scored (projects), areas that had seasonal demand – the mountains and the beach – thought they weren’t being adequately scored for peak times. We changed the criteria to give more weight. It’s better to debate those aspects than to say this isn’t working for me let’s trash it.

Q: How did the DOT board see the future of transportation? Did you think about self-driving cars? Flying cars?

A: I’m a huge advocate of the Lynx Blue Line. But I now wonder going forward whether we make that kind of investment. (Self-driving cars) are going to change how people move around and when they move around. At the last board meeting, we learned we have three times as many drone licenses as we have licenses for commercial aircraft. That’s remarkable.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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