Conflict arose Monday over the cost to use future Interstate 77 toll lanes after a citizens group said the round-trip rate could reach more than $20 between Mooresville and Charlotte.
The group Widen I77 cited N.C. Department of Transportation projections showing the initial toll rates during rush hour could reach $9 in the morning and at least $11 in the afternoon between Mooresville and Charlotte. The tolls would be less for towns closer to Charlotte. Widen I77, which opposes the toll lanes, received the estimate through a public records request.
State transportation officials countered those figures Monday, saying motorists will end up paying only about $2 per trip.
“That study was finalized in 2012, but now that the project is further along, we do not anticipate rates being that high,” said DOT spokeswoman Jen Thompson. She added that she did not know the reasons for calculating the 2012 figures in the first place.
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Kurt Naas, a spokesman for Widen I77, urged a delay on signing the construction contract.
“This represents an economic catastrophe for the region,” he said.
The project, which is expected to finish in 2018, 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. The other lanes would remain free.
The lanes would be the first privately operated toll lanes in North Carolina.
The NCDOT documents predict that Mooresville-to-Charlotte tolls will jump to at least $20 one way by 2035, according to the group.
“The numbers just don’t make sense. I don’t see how it’s a viable option,” Huntersville Commissioner Danny Phillips said. “Very few people use HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes now, and they’re free. What makes people think they will pay a toll that high to use them?”
Thompson said the $20 round-trip figure represented a driver traveling 52 miles round-trip on the full stretch of the managed lanes during the peak travel times.
“Traffic and revenue studies project a minority of motorists will use the managed lanes for that entire full-length round-trip,” Thompson said. “A more reasonable reflection of the toll cost would be in the projected average per user trip, which is in the vicinity of $2 per trip.”
Pricing tolls too high so the lanes get little use “would be counterproductive to the contractor’s goal,” Thompson said.
Raising toll rates during peak congestion is becoming more common across the country, Thompson said. It’s already in several major cities, including Atlanta, Seattle, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, she said.
In April, the N.C. Department of Transportation picked a bidder to build the 26 miles of toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville. Pending a final review, DOT officials said, Cintra Infrastructures S.A. will begin work as early as December.
State officials have said that the state needs the investment of a private company because it couldn’t otherwise afford the project. The state expects to contribute $88 million toward the $655 million project, with Cintra paying the rest. In return, Cintra will receive toll revenues for 50 years.
Total toll payments are expected to be $13 billion over the life of the state’s 50-year contract with the company, according to documents.
Mooresville resident Lou Dietrich, who travels to Charlotte at least once a week to meet with friends, said he plans to avoid I-77 altogether. And if he has to take the highway, he will drive in the general purpose lanes.
“Why pay for something you can get free?” said Dietrich, who is retired.
Mooresville resident Lynn Wenger also said he doesn’t plan to use the toll lanes, even though he regularly commutes to Charlotte and further south for jobs. Wenger is a scheduling consultant for construction companies.
Instead, Wenger believes that it would be more effective to add another general purpose lane instead of toll lanes.
“The whole idea of an HOV lane is utterly stupid,” he said. “If they would just widen I-77 to even three lanes, it would increase capacity by 50 percent.”
Naas of Widen I77 encouraged residents to contact their state representatives to try to delay the commercial close of the contract, which is expected Wednesday.
He plans to send a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory this week with signatures of at least half a dozen municipal officials requesting he delay the commercial closing.
John Bradford, a Cornelius commissioner who has supported exploring the use of toll lanes on I-77, said he thinks it would be prudent for state officials to pause the contract in light of new public concerns.
“I do not think it’s unreasonable to ask for a little postponement when you’re talking about a 50-year contract,” Bradford said.