I-485: The end of the era of new free lanes

The last segment of Interstate 485 will open Friday. The N.C. Department of Transportation and local officials favor toll lanes and toll roads for future projects.
The last segment of Interstate 485 will open Friday. The N.C. Department of Transportation and local officials favor toll lanes and toll roads for future projects. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The opening of the last segment of Interstate 485 on Friday marks the end of a 27-year construction program to encircle Charlotte with a highway.

It also marks another milestone: It’s likely the last large-scale highway program in Charlotte that doesn’t include toll lanes.

“There isn’t going to be anything again like I-485,” said Norm Steinman of the Charlotte Department of Transportation.

Because of a lack of money for highways, and a belief that new highway lanes will become quickly congested, the N.C. Department of Transportation and local officials have embraced toll lanes and toll roads. When using express lanes, motorists pay a toll that guarantees them a minimum travel speed of 45 mph.

Here are the major highway projects slated for Charlotte in the next decade:

▪ The DOT has contracted with a private developer to build express toll lanes on Interstate 77 from uptown to Mooresville, a project that has faced intense opposition from some residents and recent skepticism from politicians. Construction is scheduled to begin this summer. The lanes could be open by 2018.

▪ The state plans to add an express toll lane on I-485 in south Charlotte, from I-77 to U.S. 74. The project could be finished by 2019.

▪ As the DOT works to widen and improve Independence Boulevard, it will add express toll lanes in the median of the highway. The first express lane, from I-277 to Albemarle Road, will begin construction in one or two years.

▪ The biggest highway project in Charlotte’s history will be the rebuilding of I-77 from uptown to the South Carolina line. Starting in 10 years, the state will add two new express lanes in each direction, but no new free lanes. That project will cost at least $1 billion.

▪ The state announced last week that it has started construction on the Monroe Connector/Bypass, a 20-mile toll road through Union County. There won’t be any free lanes on that highway.

A planned toll road for Gaston County, the Garden Parkway, is in jeopardy of not being built owing to its scoring poorly on a state ranking system

The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill has sued to stop the Gaston and Union toll roads.

The state plans for two interstate widenings in the metro area that won’t be tolled. Interstate 85 in Gaston County is scheduled to be widened, along with I-85 in Cabarrus County.

But there are no plans for any sizable widenings or new highways in Charlotte without tolls.

Unlikely alliance

The reliance on toll roads and toll lanes has produced an unlikely political alliance.

Toll lanes have been embraced by some conservative think tanks and politicians, who say they are a free-market approach to building infrastructure. The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is a major proponent of toll lanes, saying the lanes “give consumers greater choice in transportation and generate additional revenues.”

At the same time, some liberal politicians have also supported toll lanes. They have said that simply adding new highway capacity doesn’t work, that the lanes will only become congested again.

In its presentations touting the I-77 toll lanes, the DOT has used that argument, showing a slide of a massive highway in China of 20 or so lanes that’s choked with cars.

“I see both of those viewpoints (from the left and the right) being exhibited,” said Bill Coxe, a transportation planner with the town of Huntersville.

He said his view on toll lanes falls in the middle of the two sides.

“For 40 years, I have seen a growing metropolitan area,” he said. “I have observed that adding additional unmanaged capacity gets consumed. Then you add more, and that gets consumed. You aren’t wealthy enough as a society to continue that same model from a financial standpoint.”

David Hartgen, a transportation consultant and former UNC Charlotte professor, said politicians and planners have mistakenly accepted the argument that new highway capacity shouldn’t be built because it will be consumed.

That logic isn’t applied to other infrastructure, he said.

For instance, few complain when Charlotte Douglas International Airport announces plans to build new runways to decrease flight delays, even though the extra runway capacity may be consumed in the future by new flights.

Hartgen said the same applies to the water and sewer systems and to schools. The government builds new infrastructure even though their capacities will be consumed by new growth.

“The HOT lanes would provide about half the capacity of free lanes but cost more,” Hartgen said. “We are using taxpayer dollars for social engineering. The poor and minority will be hurt the most.”

Funding gap

The other issue driving the toll lane push is money. The DOT is struggling to pay for the state’s transportation needs.

The federal gas tax – which helps fund North Carolina highway projects – has not increased since 1993. At the same time, people are driving less and driving more fuel-efficient cars, which can also decrease gas tax revenues.

The DOT also said the state gas tax, the highway use tax and DMV fees aren’t providing enough money to keep up with needs.

The highway scoring system championed by Gov. Pat McCrory also places a “corridor cap” on how much money can be spent on certain interstates. The cap works out to about $200 million per interstate corridor over a decade.

The cap means it would be difficult if not impossible to build the $1 billion I-77 south widening project without tolls.

“With the corridor cap, it’s hard to do I-77,” said Tim Gibbs of the Charlotte Department of Transportation, who has worked to bring toll lanes to the region for nearly a decade.

“From the MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) perspective, any of the high-dollar highways will have a toll component in part due to the cost,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs said there are no plans for additional toll lanes in the Charlotte area other than I-77, U.S. 74, I-485 and the two toll roads in Gaston and Union counties.

Harrison: 704-358-5160

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