I-77 toll lanes will open soon. Their legacy: ‘absolutely terrifying’ driver stories.

State transportation data bears out what any commuter of Interstate 77 north of Charlotte can attest: Crashes have soared since construction of toll lanes began in late 2015.

The number of crashes in the first two-and-a-half years of work was 62 percent higher, on an annual basis, than in the three years before it began, N.C. Department of Transportation data shows.

DOT reported 4,650 collisions from November 2015 through April of this year. That works out to an average of more than five crashes a day within the 26-mile work zone, and 710 additional accidents a year.

The drive between Charlotte and northern Mecklenburg or southern Iredell counties can sometime be a white-knuckle horror — endured twice a day by commuters. Drivers are hemmed in by concrete barriers as they navigate twisting lanes, often through clouds of dust, for which markers regularly change. Dump trucks dodge in and out of traffic. Stretches of 65 mph traffic abruptly screech to a crawl that can last for hours.

Jane Tarney, who lives in Huntersville, said she would have thought twice about buying her house there six years ago if she’d known about the “death trap” she would soon face.

Tarney said her daughter’s car windshield is cracked from construction debris, but she sees no point in having it repaired until the road work is over. Tarney said she refuses to drive I-77 herself and only reluctantly, and nervously, rides as a passenger.

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“I haven’t been to Charlotte since I don’t know when. Used to go to Mooresville a couple of times a week — now I go a couple of times a year, using the back roads, which is a pain!” she said by email. “I am now a prisoner confined to Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson ... this is no way to have to live and I know others who live like this too.”

The DOT’s state traffic engineer, Kevin Lacy, isn’t surprised by the increase in crashes. Working on the road while keeping it open to about 100,000 vehicles a day, he said, is like performing open-heart surgery on a patient who has to report for work the same day.

“We couldn’t shut the road down,” because no viable north-south alternatives exist, Lacy said. “At least with the heart patient, he’s not moving around on the table while you’re working.”

The project will add two toll lanes in each direction from uptown to Exit 28, in Cornelius, and one new toll lane in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36 in Mooresville.

The project’s 26-mile length also sets it apart. DOT normally builds projects in three- to five-mile segments, as state funding becomes available. Private money — the Spanish firm Cintra is building the $647 million toll lanes and will collect the revenues — made it possible to build the I-77 lanes as one project.

“We would have had that road under construction for 10-plus years if we had broken it up into pieces,” Lacy said. “How many years have we been widening I-85? Some (good) portion of our lifetimes.”

Some other insights from the DOT data:

  • Traffic backups cause the most common types of accidents, rear-end collisions and side-swipes. But that was true before and during toll lane construction. While side-swipe crashes more than doubled during the road work, rear-end crashes rose only modestly.
  • Southbound vehicles were involved in more total crashes before and during construction. But during the toll lane project those vehicles more than doubled their number of crashes into fixed objects, such as concrete barriers, and side-swipe collisions.
  • Northbound vehicles had fewer accidents overall, but their annual crash average rose more sharply than vehicles traveling south.
  • More crashes occur in certain times of year, particularly spring and fall.

Uptown Charlotte resident Cortney Scheckel, who works in Davidson, says the dark mornings of fall and winter are the worst times for what she calls her “absolutely terrifying” daily drives.

“There are no streetlights working, no flood lights on, the lines are faded, twisted, haphazardly drawn and old lines hardly removed; it’s literally every person for his or herself,” she said by email. “Add some rain and the glare, and it’s perfect conditions for a serious accident.”

A rock kicked up from the roadway recently cracked her windshield, and Scheckel has also had a flat tire from roadway debris. Last February, a car ahead of Scheckel clipped a traffic barrel, which flew into the air and smashed into her car’s bumper. She slammed on her brakes, nearly getting rear-ended, and because of heavy traffic, she said, she couldn’t get the license plate number of the vehicle at fault.

“Now I have a mangled/cracked bumper I don’t dare to replace because it’s likely to happen again,” she said.

Jean Leier, a spokeswoman for I-77 Mobility Partners, the Cintra subsidiary building the lanes, said lane markers changes as construction proceeds are reviewed internally and by DOT. Mobility Partners took over operations and maintenance of the work corridor from DOT last October.

Mobility Partners does continual right-of-way maintenance including debris cleanup and offers roadside help to drivers, she said. Sugar Creek Construction, the project’s contractor, is “responsible for maintaining a clean construction zone,” she added. Drivers can report roadway hazards by calling 855-477-2018.

Drivers aren’t the only people at risk during the construction. A roadway construction worker was critically injured last month when he was hit by a car. (Another construction worker was charged with driving under the influence while working last week, WSOC reported.)

But driver grumbling started soon after work began in late 2015, and they haven’t stopped. Metal debris left in the work zone damaged at least a dozen cars in 2016. Flooding last April closed all but one lane in the work zone near I-77’s intersection with I-85.

Some drivers says it’s easy not to realize that lanes will be closed for overnight construction work until it’s too late to take an alternate route.

Lane closures are posted on roadside message boards and on DOT’s Traffic Information Management System, Leier said. The information is also posted via online alerts and emailed newsletters, both found at www.i77express.com.

Michele Jones said she was driving home from her job in Mooresville one night when she hit a large truck tread lying in a Huntersville exit ramp. It tore off her car’s body skirting, the trim from the front to back bumper, a corner panel and half her bumper: more than $6,000 in damage.

“The reason why I am angry is because there were no lights on the interstate on that night or most nights for that matter,” she wrote in an email to The Observer. “If there had been, I at least would have had a chance to swerve around it. “

Similar driving experiences have hardly helped boost public support for the toll lanes. A furious backlash to paying tolls to a Spanish company worked against former Gov. Pat McCrory, who lost his reelection bid in 2016. Public pressure to scrap the Cintra contract continues, although DOT officials said last week that’s not likely to happen.

Cintra says it will finish the new toll lanes by the end of this year. Lacy, the traffic engineer, predicts the number of crashes will fall.

Until then, driver Bill Peterson says, Highway Patrol troopers should increase their presence on a freeway where “people drive like they’re at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.”

“You take your life in your hands on I-77 in the work zone area.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender