What you need to know about the cost for using the future I-77 toll lanes

With four months to go until new toll lanes on Interstate 77 are supposed to open, the biggest question remains how much drivers will pay for a speedier ride through the congestion-choked corridor.

The public could get its first look at proposed toll rates on I-77 next week. I-77 Mobility Partners, the subsidiary of Spanish company Cintra that’s building the toll lanes, is holding a public hearing on the proposed rate schedule Thursday in Huntersville.

There, people will get to see the “initial toll rates” and learn about the methodology for pricing tolls along the 26-mile route. Toll rates will be static, or fixed, for the first six months after the lanes open, then will fluctuate based on demand — so-called “dynamic pricing.“ The project is adding 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.

The $647 million, public-private road plan has spurred years of controversy and bitter opposition in north Mecklenburg and Iredell counties. I-77 Mobility Partners is picking up most of the tab for construction costs, but in exchange, the company gets to set toll rates and collect revenue for 50 years.

Efforts to cancel the toll lane contract and return control of the road to the state haven’t gone anywhere, and the issue remains politically explosive.

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Here are several key questions about the toll lanes, along with what we’re likely to learn next week:

How does dynamic pricing work?

As part of its contract, I-77 Mobility Partners is required to keep traffic moving at a minimum of 45 mph through the toll lanes. And as a private company seeking to make a profit, I-77 Mobility Partners will also want to maximize its revenue. That means the company will set toll rates to strike a balance between getting the most money without scaring too many drivers off, while keeping traffic flowing without dramatic slowdowns.

Tolls will be higher during rush hour and other busy travel times, to limit the number of drivers who choose to use them during the busiest periods. If the tolls are too low during rush hour, more drivers would use the lanes, clogging them and slowing traffic. But if they’re set too high, few drivers will choose to use them, meaning I-77 Mobility Partners, and parent company Cintra, won’t make money.

The tolled portion of the highway is divided into 11 segments, and drivers will pay per segment driven. Signs at the entrance to each segment will tell drivers how much they’ll pay to go a given distance.

So how much will it actually cost?

Estimates have varied widely. A 2012 consultant’s report predicted driving the entire toll highway during the afternoon rush hour would cost $11.75 upon opening, a cost that would rise to $21.63 in 2035. The N.C. Department of Transportation gives a lower estimate: “Most people using those lanes during peak commute times can expect to pay between 14 and 40 cents per mile.”

That would come out to $3.64 to $10.40 to drive the whole road. But because there are no pre-set toll rates, that number could change at any time based on the number of drivers, congestion and traffic flow.

Dynamically priced toll lanes have raised eyebrows in other states with extremely high rates. Tolls on the eastbound stretch of I-66 outside Washington, D.C., for example, hit $47.50 in February, which officials attributed to heavy volume.

There are a couple of other wrinkles. N.C. Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon has started negotiating with I-77 Mobility Partners over ways to improve the toll lane experience, and that could include a cap on toll rates. Cintra would have to agree to the cap, and it’s unclear they would, since that could limit revenue and make it harder to keep traffic moving.

The I-77 toll lane construction site, as seen from the Exit 28 overpass in Cornelius. Ely Portillo

How will you pay the toll?

You won’t need to stop at a toll booth to pay, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation. You’ll be able to pay using a transponder on your car that’s linked to either a North Carolina Turnpike Authority account or an existing account with EZ-Pass, PeachPass or SunPass.

If you don’t have a transponder, you’ll get a bill by mail based on a photograph of your license plate. But the toll rates will be higher for drivers who don’t have transponders on their cars, to cover the administrative cost of mailing out bills and processing payments.

Can anyone use the lanes for free?

Yes, drivers with two or more passengers — called HOV-3 — will be able to use the lanes for free, which could be a boon for carpoolers. But they’ll need to have an NC Quick Pass transponder and set it to the HOV-3 mode. Motorcyclists with a transponder will also be able to use the lanes for free.

When are the toll lanes opening?

Both I-77 Mobility Partners and the NCDOT said last month that the lanes are on track to open by the end of the year. But there’s still extensive construction along much of the corridor, with crews paving lanes and building bridges, especially south of Exit 18. If the lanes aren’t open by Jan. 7, the private company could face a $10,000 per day penalty under their agreement with the state.

Will the toll lane operator change rates based on feedback?

While I-77 Mobility Partners’ contract requires them to hold a public hearing on toll rates before opening the lanes, the company isn’t bound to respond to residents’ concerns or change the amount they charge. As a private firm, they’ll get to make that decision themselves, and adjust what they charge in real-time after the first six months.

“It’s not like a public utilities commission where they have to approve it. They’ll just tell you what it is,” said Kurt Naas, a toll lane opponent who started the group Widen I-77 and is a Cornelius town commissioner.

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Where and when is the hearing?

The hearing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, at Huntersville United Methodist Church Worship Center on Stumptown Road. Following a presentation about toll rates, speakers who sign up at the venue will have up to three minutes to air their views, starting at 7 p.m. The presentation will also be livestreamed for people who can’t come. More information is available at www.I77express.com.

Portillo: 704-358-5041