Toll lane opponent: DOT overlooked best free-lane option

The DOT said that adding free lanes to I-77 north isn’t feasible because the project wouldn’t score high enough under a new ranking system. The state, however, did not score all of the possible widening projects.
The DOT said that adding free lanes to I-77 north isn’t feasible because the project wouldn’t score high enough under a new ranking system. The state, however, did not score all of the possible widening projects. Steve Harrison/sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

As questions about the project increased, the DOT argued Tuesday that building free lanes on Interstate 77 north of uptown isn’t feasible, even if the state decided to abandon the controversial express toll lane project in that area.

The crux of the DOT’s argument: Free lanes on I-77 there won’t pass the state’s new scoring system for highway projects.

But opponents of the toll lanes say the DOT is cherry-picking data to bolster its argument.

Kurt Naas of the anti-toll lane group Widen I-77 said the state has ignored a hypothetical scoring of the project that would make the most sense: Adding a new free lane from Exit 23 in Huntersville to either Exit 30 in Davidson or Exit 31 at Langtree Road.

“The projects that got the hypothetical scoring (by the DOT) are sub-optimal projects,” Naas said. “If you had something that directly addressed the problem, it would score even higher.”

Mecklenburg County on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution that asked for a delay in signing the contract and for the DOT to seek a delay.

The county joined the towns of Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville, and Iredell County in recently passing resolutions that question the project.

The DOT signed the final paperwork Wednesday with the private developer.

Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett, who represents the Lake Norman area, was critical of the DOT for moving forward on the project. He said it is “the single most insulting and arrogant act of governance I have witnessed in my 18 years of politics.”

Ranking system

As the local governments have increasingly questioned the noncompete clause, the DOT has defended the project.

In a news release Tuesday, the state said that building free lanes on I-77 north of uptown wouldn’t be feasible.

“Using the same criteria to produce a hypothetical score there is no section of I-77 North that would score high enough, or fall within corridor cap limits, to be funded for construction ahead of the I-77 Express Lanes project south of Charlotte for at least the next ten years under the law,” the DOT said.

Under McCrory’s new ranking system, which was approved by the General Assembly, highway projects are evaluated on a number of criteria, including congestion, safety and economic development. High-scoring projects are given priority. There is a limit to how much the state will spend on a single transportation corridor.

Naas said the project that would make the most sense would be to add a new lane in each direction from Exit 23 in Huntersville for about seven or eight miles to the north.

On northbound I-77, the highway is three lanes until it reaches Exit 23, where it drops to two lanes. That is a traffic bottleneck.

That project would be similar in size to the recently completed widening of I-485 in south Charlotte.

As the toll lane project has been debated, the state has done hypothetical scoring for a number of I-77 projects. But it has not assigned a score to widening of I-77 from Exit 23 to Exit 30 or Exit 31.

That project would be relatively simple to build, as the DOT already owns right-of-way and there is enough space in the median for an extra lane.

It’s unclear how much that project would cost because the DOT has not studied it.

But the state has estimated that adding a new lane from Exit 28 to Exit 36 would cost $91.5 million. That’s an 8-mile project.

Adding a free lane from Exit 23 to Exit 31 is about 9.5 miles.

Naas said that project would likely score high enough to move ahead of several other highway projects around the state.

“It would still receive funding through normal appropriations,” he said.

Corridor cap questions

In the DOT’s statement, the other roadblock for free lanes is whether an I-77 project north of uptown could leapfrog planned improvements for I-77 south of uptown.

The DOT also plans to build express toll lanes on I-77 from the S.C. state line to uptown. That project is scheduled to start in 2024.

In its scoring system, those projects currently score higher than the addition of free lanes to I-77 north of uptown. (Though it’s unclear if they would score higher than adding a free lane from Exit 23 to Exit 30 or 31.)

The competition between the I-77 north and I-77 south projects is important because McCrory’s new funding formula places a cap on how much money can be allocated to one transportation corridor.

The cap works out to about $200 million over 10 years.

Naas said the DOT could spend between $90 million and $100 million widening I-77 north in 2015 to 2017, and still have about $100 million remaining for I-77 south.

To avoid exceeding the corridor cap, the state could spend about $100 million acquiring right-of-way for the I-77 project in 2024.

After that, the state could start construction on the I-77 toll lanes with new “corridor cap” money available, Naas said.

Harrison: 704-358-5160

Related stories from Charlotte Observer