I-77 toll lanes delayed

The state will open Interstate 77 toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville a year later than planned to give companies more time to prepare bids on the $550 million project, a top state highway official said this week.

The N.C. Department of Transportation hoped to open the lanes in 2017, but the four potential bidders said they need to collect more information before submitting their bids, Rodger Rochelle told the Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission at its meeting in Davidson.

The project now is expected to open in 2018, he said.

Rochelle oversees DOT construction contracts and public-private partnerships such as the one planned for the I-77 toll lanes.

The potential bidders requested more time to get information from bond rating agencies, Rochelle said.

The winning bidder will finance, design, build and operate the lanes. 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.

Cars with at least three occupants would avoid a toll to use the lanes. Motorcycles and buses could also use the lanes for free.

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

The lanes would be the first privately operated toll lanes in North Carolina.

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.

But state Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Cornelius, said debate over the toll lanes is over. “It’s closed,” he said. “There’s nothing to debate.”