The shoulders of Interstate 77 north of Charlotte will be used as travel lanes during daily rush hours after a regional transportation board agreed to a funding swap Wednesday.
Up to six segments of shoulders between interchanges in the I-77 corridor — from N.C. 150 in Mooresville to I-485 in Charlotte — could be opened to the heavy traffic seen on weekday mornings and afternoons. Construction is expected to start next spring or summer.
The project follows a pledge last August by North Carolina’s transportation secretary to make the toll lanes that widened I-77 more palatable to drivers, despite local opposition. A portion of the toll lanes, from Mooresville to Huntersville, opened June 1.
As part of that strategy, the N.C. Department of Transportation is evaluating the feasibility of adding another free lane on I-77 North. Until then, the department says, converting shoulders to travel lanes in both directions of travel, for use only in peak periods, offers quicker improvement with minimal disruption.
The shoulders “are anticipated to enhance peak period traffic conditions on I-77 North for local trips until additional non-toll capacity improvements are viable,” DOT documents say.
The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization made the project possible Wednesday by agreeing to use $47 million that had been allocated to eight bicycle and pedestrian and 12 road projects. Money from other accounts will be shifted to fund those projects, the transportation department says.
The regional planning organization covers Mecklenburg, Iredell and western Union counties. Members represent those counties, 23 municipalities including Charlotte, the state transportation board and Charlotte’s transit commission.
Transportation engineers are still conducting analyses to prioritize which shoulder segments will be converted. Public meetings will be held at later dates. It’s unclear when the shoulders will be open to travelers.
DOT says it has not discussed the shoulder plan with I-77 Mobility Partners, the subsidiary of general contractor Cintra that built and operates the toll lanes, but does not expect it to trigger litigation.
“We believe that our contract protects us with respect to I-77 Mobility Partners,” Division 10 Engineer Scott Cole told CRTPO members. An I-77 Mobility Partners spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Despite widespread hostility to the toll lanes in northern Mecklenburg — critics insist I-77 should have been widened with free lanes — I-77 Mobility Partners reported last week that overall travel speeds have increased and rush-hour travel times shortened since the Mooresville-to-Huntersville lanes opened June 1.