State law allows the N.C. Department of Transportation to create toll lanes on existing highways, so long as the conversion doesn’t “reduce the number of existing non-toll general purpose lanes.”
But in the plan to create express toll lanes on Interstate 77, the Transportation Department plans to convert pieces of free lanes into toll lanes.
DOT said last week that it can’t comment in detail because of impending litigation over the toll lanes, part of which focuses on the free lane/toll lane conversion question.
But the state said the I-77 contract “reflects what the law states.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
The first segment in question runs on I-77 northbound, just north of the Interstate 85 interchange.
On that part of the highway, there are four general purpose free lanes for 1 mile north of I-85. At that point, one of the free lanes is converted to a carpool lane.
The second segment is a few miles to the north. After the Interstate 485 interchange, the carpool lane ends and reverts back to a free general purpose lane for about 1.5 miles.
DOT’s plan calls for the existing carpool lane to be converted to a toll lane. That is allowed under state law and federal guidelines.
But the conversion would also include the two small segments of I-77 that don’t have a toll lane.
Kurt Naas of the group Widen I-77 opposes the toll lanes. The conversion of the free lane north of I-485 is part of the group’s lawsuit against the project.
“It may seem like a small thing,” Naas said. “But the law is the law.”
It’s unclear how the state law would be interpreted if the lawsuit moves forward. The segments of free lanes that are being converted are not long enough to go from one exit to another, and it’s possible the issue could be seen as a technicality. That would allow the toll lane project to move forward.
Earlier this year, the Transportation Department considered opening up an unused lane on the outside shoulder of I-485 in south Charlotte.
The state’s long-term plans for the shoulder is to convert it to a toll lane, and the state said it couldn’t open the shoulder as a free lane today because that would stop it from tolling it in the future.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s guidelines generally prohibit converting free lanes into toll lanes, though there are some exceptions.
On I-77 south, the carpool lane is longer. It runs from north of I-485 all the way to Interstate 277 in uptown. That means there is no segment of I-77 south in which free lanes are being switched to toll lanes.
Last month, the state Transportation Department signed the final paperwork with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Cintra US, to build the toll lanes. Construction is expected to start this summer and be completed in 2018.
In May, a number of local officials grew concerned about the terms of the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, specifically a provision that would make it difficult to widen I-77 for the next 50 years after the toll lanes are finished.