I-77 HOT lanes lose funding

State transportation officials say they're confident they'll find a way to compensate for the loss of $30million in federal stimulus funding for high-occupancy toll lanes on Interstate 77 into North Mecklenburg.

The N.C. Department of Transportation learned last week that it won't get the "Tiger II" funds it had applied for to help convert I-77's high-occupancy vehicle lanes into HOT lanes and extend them into Cornelius by 2014.

DOT's administration found creative alternative ways to finance Interstate 485's widening and a safer Interstate 85 Yadkin River bridge, and it will do the same with the HOT lanes, spokeswoman Greer Beaty said.

"This is another opportunity for us to find another solution, and that is the focus here in the Department of Transportation," Beaty said.

Bonds to be repaid by toll revenues over 30 years would cover $22million of the $50 million project. Another $5million would come from the federal CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement) program.

The Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization has already marked the CMAQ money to go toward the I-77 HOT project, DOT official Reid Simons said in updating the Cornelius Board of Commissioners Monday,, before the state learned it wouldn't get the Tiger II money.

Commissioner Jim Bensman said he wasn't surprised the state didn't get the Tiger II funds, noting that about 2,500 applications were submitted nationwide for $400million in available grants. "There has to be a Plan B," Bensman said at the meeting.

Commissioner Dave Gilroy said losing the stimulus money now makes the project timetable "completely unknown."

"Time for Plan B," Gilroy agreed. "Clearly, the Lake Norman Transportation Commission should focus sharply on accelerating this critical road expansion and avoid diluting its efforts with pre-occupation around the controversial (Charlotte Area Transit System's) North (rail) Line."

Various local agencies back the HOT lanes, saying they would reduce congestion and bring the proposed widening of I-77 sooner.

The toll lanes - one in each direction - would be free to vehicles carrying at least two people. CATS buses and vanpools also could use the lanes free.

Motorists traveling alone could use the lanes for a toll. The price would vary depending on the time of day; tolls would be higher during the most congested hours. Some revenues would pay for law enforcement to watch for motorists trying to cheat the system.

The existing HOV lanes on I-77 stretch into Charlotte. The highway has 18 miles of HOV lanes southbound and 14 miles northbound, one of the longest HOV stretches in the country, Lynn Purnell, a civil engineer for consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff, told an I-77 task force earlier this year.

The proposed northbound HOT lane would end a half-mile south of Cornelius Exit 28, Simons said.

The proposed southbound HOT lane would begin between Exit 28 and Davidson Exit 30, she said.

Help phase two of Hope Park

Volunteers began selling engraved fence pickets this month to raise money for phase two of the community-built Hope Park outside Lowe's YMCA.

Phase II will include a spray park surrounded by the engraved fence pickets, said Sarah Dumser of Mooresville. She led the construction of phase one, which involved about 900 volunteers.

Only 178 engraved pickets are available in phase two, compared with 740 for the phase-one playground, Dumser said.

The pickets are $100 each. All proceeds will go toward building phase two.