I-77 tolls to be just one of several new funding plans for N.C. DOT, officials say

The plan to add toll lanes on Interstate 77 is just one example of new financial techniques being explored by the state Department of Transportation.

At a Wednesday meeting, N.C. DOT Secretary Tony Tata updated the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce’s regional transportation committee on the plan. Emphasizing that the department budget is not large enough to allow the state to tackle all transportation projects at the same time, Tata described the toll lanes as an example of an innovative way to secure funding.

In this vein, the DOT will recommend several new techniques for raising roadwork money to the governor this fall. Local option taxes will likely be one of the suggestions, though the proposal is in only its preliminary stages, Tata said.

The proposition would allow voters the choice to increase sales or fuel taxes to pay for regional transportation projects. A similar plan, known as “Pennies for Projects,” has been adopted in South Carolina’s York County and proved popular with voters.

With revenue from the state gas tax flatlining, new solutions such as local option taxes and the toll lanes are needed, DOT officials said.

“Our ambition consistently exceeds our wallet,” said Ned Curran, chairman of the N.C DOT Board of Transportation.

Details of the toll lanes plan are still being worked out–including the rate of the tolls and their access points–but the project is moving forward.

The toll lanes will be built by private company Cintra Infrastructures over four years. The state will put $88 million toward the new lanes, while Cintra will pay for the remainder of the $655 million project—the first such public-private roadwork partnership in North Carolina.

Cintra will collect the revenue from the tolls for 50 years.

The tolls’ rates have not been set, but the decision will be driven by local input, said Nicholas Rubio, Cintra’s United States president.

Community hearings will be held to help determine the appropriate rate, and until local voices are heard, the DOT will not be able to give accurate estimates.

"You don't pay $10 for a gallon of milk, because nobody will pay that,” Tata said. “It's the same kind of idea here.”

The plan has been the object of outcry from some local residents, including the citizen group Widen I-77. Opponents of the tolls argue that the cost will be prohibitive and that the state could widen the interstate on its own for less than the cost of bringing in a private company.