Traffic

I-77 toll lanes have cut rush-hour travel times, operator says. Not everybody’s happy.

The portion of Interstate 77 toll lanes that opened June 1 has increased overall travel speeds and shaved several minutes off rush-hour travel times in their first month, a subsidiary of the project’s general contractor said Friday.

Fifteen miles of toll lanes opened between Hambright Road in Huntersville and Exit 36 in Mooresville. Toll lanes extending to Charlotte, completing the 26-mile, $647 million project, are expected to open this fall.

About 12,500 unique vehicles a day used the new lanes in June, said I-77 Mobility Partners, the subsidiary of general contractor Cintra that built and operates the toll lanes.

Travel speeds increased in both toll and general-purpose lanes in the completed portion of the corridor, it said. Faster speeds shaved 5 minutes off the average 20-minute travel time in the morning rush hours, Mobility Partners reported, and 11 minutes off the 29-minute average in the afternoon peak times.

It’s not clear what influence other factors, such as the end of the school year that roughly coincided with the opening of the lanes, have on the travel times.

Toll lane drivers paid an average of $3 to $5 for the month, I-77 Mobility said. The prices reflect a 25% discount that’s in effect until the full toll lanes open.

The N.C. Turnpike Authority says drivers are queuing up for the windshield-mounted transponders that allow tolls to be automatically debited from prepaid accounts through NC Quick Pass.

Since last October, when two Charlotte-area customer service centers opened, 157,000 transponders have been sent out, the authority said.

On the first day the I-77 toll lanes opened, the program issued 1,800 transponders, six times the normal number. On the first business day the lanes were open, June 3, more than 3,100 transponders were issued, a one-day record. More than 30,000 transponders were issued in the first three weeks after the lanes opened.

But many drivers in northern Mecklenburg are emphatically not on board with the toll lanes, insisting that I-77 should have been widened with free lanes. Some commenters on social media have called for a boycott of the new lanes.

Cornelius town commissioner Kurt Naas, the founder of Widen I-77, a group that advocated for general purpose lanes, wrote a June 1 blog post that referred to the decades during which Cintra will collect toll revenues: “Our 50-year nightmare begins today.” In it, Naas acknowledged that some local people had looked forward to using the lanes.

“But every dime a person spends on private tolls is one less dime in our local economy,” he wrote. “One more dime prolonging the tyranny of private tolling. One more dime enabling a private company to profit off of public misery. I don’t see how anyone could support that. As a community I hope we remember that. (Personally, I wouldn’t mind having the purchase of a QuickPass become a litmus test disqualifying a candidate for public office.)“

Former NASCAR crew chief Larry McReynolds, now an analyst on Fox NASCAR, has exhorted his 182,000 Twitter followers to avoid the lanes.

“It was good to see hardly no one using new Pay Express Lanes on I-77 today!” he tweeted when the lanes opened, winning nearly 2,000 likes. “I’m not cheap, but if we join together and boycott those lanes, they’ll eventually let us drive on roads we already pay tons of taxes to drive on!

While she said there’s no sign of an organized boycott of the lanes, Michelle Ferlauto of the Lake Norman Transportation Safety Partnership, which tracks issues such as construction debris on I-77, said she expects that critics of the lanes will refuse in principle to use them.

“I think we’re going to enter a period of ‘toll shaming,’ “ Ferlauto said. “If you use the lanes, you’re supporting them.”

Some CATS commuters have complained that I-77 express buses are still mired in traffic while toll lanes are comparatively lightly traveled.

Huntersville resident Katy Paasch, who rides the 48X from Northcross, said she hasn’t been able to learn from drivers why the buses don’t use the toll lanes.

“How are we going to get the people paying tolls to ride the bus and get the money out of Cintra’s pocket if buses keep driving in the free lanes?” she asked by email.

CATS says it has been waiting to install transponders, but expects them to be assigned to buses by Friday. Drivers will then have to be trained to use the lanes, and CATS says it does not know when that will be finished.

Bruce Henderson writes about transportation, emerging issues and interesting people for The Charlotte Observer. His reporting background is in covering energy, environment and state news.
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