Treacherous rains flooded I-77 toll lanes work zone. Will it happen again?

Treacherous rains caused flooding on Interstate 77 this week in the toll lanes construction work zone in Charlotte.
Treacherous rains caused flooding on Interstate 77 this week in the toll lanes construction work zone in Charlotte. WBTV

Frustrated drivers are demanding answers after treacherous rains flooded Interstate 77 where toll lanes are being built in Charlotte.

Footage from Observer news partner WBTV showed drivers creeping through a massive pond on Tuesday afternoon that closed all but one lane near Interstate 85 during the worst of the storm.

One driver told WBTV the water reached halfway up the tires of her SUV and she worried about safely making it through water that was colored by red clay.

State Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Cornelius, told the Observer on Wednesday that he’s never seen such flooding on the highway in his 26 years living in the area. He said he was checking whether the toll lanes contractor can be fined or otherwise penalized by the state.

N.C. Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Cornelius File photo

Standing water was first detected beside construction barriers in the work zone on Tuesday morning, and the state Department of Transportation ordered the contractor to remove it, which it did, DOT spokeswoman Jennifer Thompson said.

A huge pool of water collected Tuesday afternoon amid torrential rains from thunderstorms that moved through the area.

Most of the Charlotte area got about 1.4 inches of rain on Tuesday, former Charlotte Observer reporter Steve Lyttle said on his "Weather With Steve" Facebook page. For the week through Wednesday, automated gauges near Charlotte’s uptown and on the near-north side recorded 4-inch-plus totals, Lyttle said .

At daybreak Wednesday, a DOT safety inspection found debris clogging areas in the work zone that control soil runoff, Thompson said. The debris appeared because of the heavy rains, she said.

DOT has ordered the contractor to better control runoff Thompson told the Observer.

Tarte said he contacted N.C. Department of Transportation officials at about 10 p.m. Tuesday and at 7 a.m. Wednesday to find out why the water backed up and to make sure something was being done about it.

“I understand how bad it was yesterday,” Tarte posted on Facebook on Wednesday. My wife was driving on I77 last night and she called me crying about how scary it was. I drove home from the airport on I77 around 9:00 pm.”

Most people who replied to his post thanked him for staying on the problem.

Others were skeptical the state would do anything about it.

"I don't trust them to be on it , but thank you for trying to help and be a voice," Shannon Montecino posted.

"Billions of dollars and we can't handle 2 inches of rain," posted Steve Miller. "It's time for some real leadership in NC."

Tarte told the Observer he also wants assurances the new lanes won’t flood after the toll lanes project finally is complete late this year.

He joked that people might as well take their fishing poles to the highway the next time water backs up and forms a pond.

“It could serve a dual purpose,” Tarte quipped of the I-77 toll lanes project, saying the I-77 “pond” could be stocked with fish.

The project must be completed and opened no later than Jan. 7, 2019, according to terms of the state’s contract with I-77 Mobility Partners.

I-77 Mobility Partners is the subsidiary of Spain-based contractor Cintra that is financing, designing and building the project. I-77 Mobility Partners also will operate and maintain the lanes as part of the public-private partnership with the N.C. Department of Transportation.

The $647 million project has angered drivers caught in frequent backups during the late-night and early morning construction. The worst backups have meant a two-hour drive from Charlotte to Mooresville – a commute that normally takes about 35 minutes.

Two toll, or “express” lanes are being added in each direction between uptown Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. Between Cornelius and Exit 36 (N.C. 150) in Mooresville, one express lane is being added in each direction.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067; @jmarusak