I-77 toll lanes project on track to start in fall

The state’s $550 million plan to add Interstate 77 toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville is on track to begin this fall.

On Friday, the N.C. Department of Transportation plans to issue a final addendum to its request for proposals to finance, design, build and operate the lanes, DOT spokesman Jamille Robbins said.

In mid-March, the department expects to receive final price proposals from potential bidders, he said.

The contract will be for 50 years so the contractor can recoup its investment, state officials have said.

While the private contractor will finance most of the project, the state plans to contribute $170 million toward the cost.

The project calls for adding two toll lanes on northbound and southbound I-77 between Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One toll lane would continue in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36.

The state intends to open the lanes in 2017, according to the DOT’s latest construction timetable.

Traffic in the corridor has increased at least 4 percent in each of the past five years and is expected to rise 2 to 3 percent annually through 2030, according to the state.

The statewide citizens’ group Toll Free NC opposes the project, saying the interstate should be widened with far less costly general purpose lanes.

“These are not your parents’ tolls of 25 cents into the basket,” the group says on its website. “The cost for these tolls from Mooresville to Charlotte could cost $5, $6.50 and up to $16 or more each way.

“Drivers are given the choice to sit in even more congestion in the two lanes you have today or pay the high price to use the tolls. These lanes are nicknamed ‘Lexus Lanes.’ Do you want to pay $10 a day for your work commute or to get your kids to school and activities – on top of gas and other fees (including N.C.’s highest gas tax in the Southeast)?”

State officials have said they don’t know how much the toll rate would be but that it would vary depending on traffic congestion.

In the Charlotte area, Toll Free NC is also fighting proposed toll lanes on I-85 from Concord to Gastonia; I-485 from I-85 at Charlotte Douglas International Airport to Ballantyne in south Charlotte; and I-277 from Independence Boulevard in Charlotte to well into Union County.

Last year, a public interest law firm that helped delay the $725 million Monroe Connector-Bypass raised concerns about the state’s environmental review of the planned I-77 toll lanes.

The Southern Environmental Law Center called the review “rushed” and “threadbare.” It said the state’s environmental assessment was so inadequate that it failed to meet requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal and state laws needed to eventually get the project permitted.

The center wrote the letter on behalf of the Catawba Riverkeeper and Clean Air Carolina.

In October, however, the Federal Highway Administration approved the state’s finding that the project will have no significant impact on the environment.