During rush hour one evening earlier this week, cars moved steadily along Interstate 77 heading from uptown toward Mooresville at around 60 mph.
Just south of I-485, drivers began hitting their brakes on the general lanes as they hit typical I-77 congestion.
A little farther north that Monday evening, a few drivers pulled into the toll lanes where they could drive “as fast as they wanted to go,” according to driver Mike McGuire.
About half of the I-77 toll lanes, which contractor I-77 Mobility Partners calls “Express Lanes,” opened last Saturday.
I-77 Mobility Partners is a subsidiary of Spain-based company Cintra. Charlotte-based I-77 Mobility Partners is financing and building the lanes and collecting the toll revenues, while the N.C. Department of Transportation owns the lanes.
Eventually, the toll lanes will run 26 miles from Exit 11 (Brookshire Freeway/I-277 in uptown Charlotte) to Exit 36 (N.C. 150). The lanes are split into 11 segments, each between one and five miles. For now, only the toll lanes between Exit 23 in Huntersville and Exit 36 are open.
For now, drivers pay individually for segments that cost between $0.30 to $2.69. Currently, a full trip on the lanes costs up to $6.55 depending on time of day.
In three months, lanes will change from scheduled pricing to dynamic pricing. Sensors in the roadway will measure traffic and adjust the cost to manage the number of cars on the lanes, according to the I-77 Express Lanes website. Under its contract, I-77 Mobility Partners must keep traffic at 45 mph in the toll lanes, the Observer has reported.
Drivers are getting a 25% discount on prices before all 26 miles open in September, the Observer reported last week. After the first six months, the lanes will operate at a maximum price of $9.40.
Transponder sales suggested that people plan to use the toll lanes. NCDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Thompson said that when the lanes opened on Saturday, NC Quick Pass distributed 1,800 transponders, six times the amount they typically sell.
But Town of Cornelius Commissioner Kurt Naas, who has long opposed the toll lanes, said the early results mean nothing.
“This is a 50-year contract. Two or three day results make absolutely no difference,” Naas said.
Construction to finish in October
Business leaders and other residents have long been upset with terms of the state’s contract with Cintra, including that no general purpose lanes can be added for 50 years without stiff financial penalty, the Observer has reported.
Environmental scientist and legal analyst Joseph Torok said the lanes are “an environmental justice concern” because the lanes have the worst impact on the people who can’t afford to use them.
According to Torok, the negative impacts include “poorer air quality, noise pollution, higher greenhouse gas emissions and poorer health.”
Opponents are vocal on the internet. Citizen group Widen I77 has opposed the toll lanes since 2012.
Twitter account @I77CAR has bashed interstate traffic and toll payers, tweeting this week: “Haha TROLL THE TOLLERS.”
Even former NASCAR crew chief Larry McReynolds has joined in the criticism. He tweeted, “It was good to see hardly no one using new Pay Express Lanes on I-77 today!”
Drivers aren’t just concerned about traffic and cost. Crashes on I-77 were up 62 percent during construction, the Observer reported in August 2018.
Construction, which has been in progress for 3 1/2 years, won’t be complete until Oct. 31, 2019, according to an email from NCDOT spokeswoman Thompson.
Bank of America strategist Blake Thomas said toll lane construction increased his commute from 25 minutes to about an hour.
“It’s a shame they couldn’t just add one general purpose lane,” Thomas said.
Other drivers are toll-lane proponents. McGuire said the “fantastic” toll lane was worth the cost “and more.” He said that it saves him about 15 to 30 minutes between uptown Charlotte and his home.
“It allows me to spend more time with my family,” McGuire said.
On Twitter, he said that it makes him “want to dance a jig every day.”
How to use the lanes
Using the toll lanes is as simple as merging left onto them. Drivers can follow signs to enter and exit between segments. The I-77 Express website has a map for drivers to plan where to exit the lanes before pulling off the highway.
Segments are each billed separately. There are no tollbooths; drivers either pay with an NC Quick Pass or by mail or email. Cameras in each lane photograph license plates and send bills to the registered address.
Drivers pay 35% less if they use an NC Quick Pass rather than the pay-by-mail or email option, according to Thompson.
NC Quick Passes come as stickers and transponders. Stickers are free, and transponders cost between $7.40 and $16.49 depending on the type.
For drivers without NC Quick Passes, bills will arrive about 30 days later, according to an I-77 Express Lanes video. Motorcycles and cars with three or more passengers can drive on the toll lanes for free.
To be recognized as a high occupancy vehicle, travelers using a transponder need to change the device to HOV status. If using an NC Quick Pass sticker, travelers should register as an HOV 3+ on NC Quick Pass’s website or app at least 15 minutes before using the lane.
Some vehicles aren’t allowed on the toll lanes: no school buses, RVs or moving trucks, according to the I-77Express website. All drivers can still choose to drive on the general lanes.
Staff writer Maddy Arrowood contributed.