Most Lake Norman residents agree I-77 needs to be widened but the best way in which to approach that project is still a matter of debate.
The N.C. Department of Transportation hopes to make a recommendation on the I-77 widening project to the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization by fall, said Barry Moose, a division engineer with the department.
The department is mainly considering three options:
Create three lanes to Exit 28, with one lane a High Occupancy Toll lane.
Create four lanes to Exit 28 with an High Occupancy Toll Lane.
Create three lanes to Exit 36
In a High Occupancy Toll, or HOT lane, drivers can buy their way into a high occupancy vehicle lane, or HOV lane, by paying a toll.Mooresville Commissioner Mitch Abraham said the ideal project would widen I-77 to eight lanes from Charlotte to Statesville. He said the eight-lane plan was originally discussed years ago.
“That would be our ultimate goal,” he said.
Still, Abraham said adding an HOT lane during the I-77 expansion project “is close to being the next best option.”
Bill Coxe, chair of the technical coordinating committee that advises the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO), said the revenue from tolls would likely break even overtime and not turn a profit.
According to one estimate, an HOT lane to Exit 28 would generate enough revenue to cover the operations and enforcement in the lane after about 20 years. In addition, the revenue would cover about $22 million of the construction costs.
"All three options have their merit and they all have pros and cons," said Moose. "Taking one lane up to 28 would give the public the quickest relief. But if you take it into Mooresville, it's going to help a lot more people."
Creating three lanes to Exit 28 would cost between $55 million and $60 million and would take about two years to construct, Moose said.
Any work on widening the highway will not likely begin before 2015, he added.
Currently, the department is considering creating three lanes to Exit 28 as the most feasible and realistic option.
In order to fund the other two options, the department would likely need private funding, said Moose.
The department has not calculated the cost of those two projects, he said.
Some town officials acknowledged that while the first option might be the quickest and cheapest form of relief for Lake Norman commuters, they wondered whether the remedy would fall short of a cure.
"Stopping at Exit 28 just moves the traffic jam north," said Cornelius Commissioner Jim Bensman, who also said he favors widening I-77 to Mooresville. "Four lanes to Exit 28 will create massive backups at Exit 28 just like the backups that occur at Exit 23 now."
But other town officials said they would support any relief they can get in the current economic climate, adding that residents' main concern centers on when a widening will occur and not necessarily on how it will occur.
"[It's] critical to get started and we cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good," said Cornelius Commissioner David Gilroy.
Huntersville Commissioner Danae Caulfield voiced similar concerns: "Whatever we can get the state to provide is much needed and welcomed. Less time stuck in traffic is more time to enjoy our lives, less smog and less gas guzzled, which is a very good thing."
Some officials noted the causeways between Exit 28 and Exit 36 confound the issue because it will require more money and time to expand I-77 over them.“As far as Mooresville constituents and the conversations I have had with them, I always get the normal talk of congestion, chaos when accidents occur, but for the most part, all are pretty understanding of the money issue and the cost to widen,” said Abraham.
Regardless of all the unanswered questions, Moose said he is confident the department will decide on the scope of the project by fall.
For now, Moose said the department is waiting to hear recommendations from a consulting firm within the next two months.
After that, DOT will make its suggestion to MUMPO. Moose added it's unlikely that the department will carry out a widening plan without the approval of MUMPO.