Final I-77 toll lanes won’t open by the deadline. Contractor faces NCDOT fines.

Facing a completion deadline on Thursday, the contractor for the Interstate 77 toll lanes north of Charlotte has asked for more time to open the southern portion of the lanes but faces fines, the state transportation department says.

The N.C. Department of Transportation is reviewing requests for more time but has made no decisions on them, department spokeswoman Jennifer Thompson said.

Work on the 26-mile project, which has been reviled by critics who say the added lanes on the congested corridor should be free, began four years ago. It was initially to open in January, but the deadline was extended so contractors could do further work at the request of DOT and a regional transportation planning group.

The project will add two toll lanes in each direction between Charlotte and Cornelius, and one toll lane both ways from Cornelius to Mooresville.

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The 15-mile portion of the lanes from I-485 in Huntersville to Mooresville opened in June. The rest of the project, from I-485 to I-277 in Charlotte, was due for completion by Thursday.

Under the state’s contract, liquidated damages of $10,000 a day will be assessed for each section of the lanes that are completed after Friday, the transportation department says. Liquidated damages are charged against payments to contractors when contract terms aren’t met. Damages are withheld from payments to the contractors, which have the right to appeal them.

The developer of the project, I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of general contractor Cintra, said it “remains in close contact with NCDOT and our construction partners as we work toward a fall opening of I-77 Express between I-485 and (I-277) in Charlotte.

“With the flexibility of a design-build project, changes can occur during construction. I-77 Mobility Partners has made every effort to work with our partners in good faith and uphold our agreements along the way.”

Testing of digital signs along the portion of the lanes that haven’t yet opened began this week.

Travel speeds increased in both toll and general-purpose lanes in the completed portion of the corridor, I-77 Mobility Partners said in July.

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. The opening of the lanes coincided with the end of the school year, which reduces congestion.

To further reduce traffic backups, a regional transportation board agreed to a funding swap in July that will allow the shoulders of I-77 to be used as travel lanes during daily rush hours.

Up to six segments of shoulders between interchanges in the I-77 corridor — from N.C. 150 in Mooresville to I-485 — could be opened to the heavy traffic seen on weekday mornings and afternoons. Construction was expected to start next spring or summer.

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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.