While a debate has raged over whether toll lanes should be built on Interstate 77 in north Mecklenburg, the N.C. Department of Transportation has been quietly planning to bring toll lanes to Independence Boulevard, possibly by the end of 2016.
Like the lanes planned for I-77, the Independence toll lanes would use variable pricing in an effort to maintain a speed of 45 mph. If more people want to use the lanes, the price of the high-occupancy toll lanes – or HOT lanes – would increase.
The lanes would be built on an existing busway from I-277 to Albemarle Road and then continue to Wallace Lane as part of a widening project that’s currently underway on U.S. 74.
Because the busway already exists, the state estimates the toll-lane conversion can be done relatively inexpensively, for $13 million.
“It’s basically a retrofit,” said Scott Cole, deputy division engineer with N.C. DOT.
Although the idea of placing tolls on Independence has been mentioned for years, widespread opposition has not emerged, unlike the toll for I-77.
“We haven’t had a lot of resistance” from residents, Cole said. “We are looking to embark on a public information effort and a public outreach effort early next year.”
The I-77 project is projected to be finished by 2019. But if the Independence Boulevard project moves forward, Charlotte-area drivers may already be using the NC Quick Pass, electronic transponders mounted to windshields. The Quick Pass is already in use for the Triangle Expressway in Wake County.
The state eventually plans to add electronic tolling on I-485 in south Charlotte and I-77 in south Charlotte. The toll lanes also could be extended on U.S. 74 all the way to Matthews.
Under the state’s plans, there would be three entrance and exit points for the toll lanes on Independence Boulevard. Drivers could get on or off at I-277, Albemarle Road and Wallace Lane.
The lanes would be reversible and sealed by gates. In the morning, they would be used for inbound traffic and then switched for outbound traffic in the afternoon. During off-peak times, the lanes would be closed.
That’s different from the I-77 project, where the toll lanes are projected to always be open, though with a lower price during off-peak times.
Charlotte Area Transit System buses would continue to use the Independence toll lanes for free. Cole said the state hasn’t decided whether vehicles with three or more passengers could use the lanes for free, which will be the case on I-77 in north Mecklenburg.
City Council member John Autry, who represents east Charlotte, said he is disappointed the state hasn’t made a commitment to allow two-person carpools to use the lanes for free. When Autry was asked whether he would prefer the busway be converted to general purpose lanes instead of toll lanes, he declined to answer.
“That’s not my decision,” he said.
The I-77 north project will be managed under a 50-year contract by Cintra Infraestructuras S.A., a subsidiary of Spanish infrastructure developer Ferrovial. The firm will design and build the toll lanes in a $655 million project.
N.C. DOT plans to handle the Independence Boulevard project in-house.
After the Independence project opens in 2016 or early 2017, and the I-77 toll lanes open in 2019, the state plans to open a third toll lane project on I-485 south.
The DOT plans to start widening the outerbelt from Rea Road to U.S. 74 starting in 2018. As part of that project, the state would add toll lanes across the entire southern leg of the outerbelt, from I-77 to U.S. 74.