Politics & Government

How environmental rules could make it tougher to drop the I-77 toll lanes

Construction work continues on express toll lanes on I-77 in Cornelius.
Construction work continues on express toll lanes on I-77 in Cornelius. sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

Will environmental hurdles block a possible change to the Interstate 77 toll-lane project?

An advisory group of officials and representatives of area chambers of commerce discussed Wednesday the obstacles to making large changes to the controversial project, such as converting some or all of the planned toll lanes into free lanes.

The consultant RS&H told the group that the N.C. Department of Transportation would have to re-do much of its environmental impact statement for the highway if it scrapped the express toll lanes. That could take more than a year, the consultants said.

If the state decided to buy out the contractor, I-77 Mobility Partners, it could in theory have a situation where the widened highway would be ready for traffic, but unable to be used because the project’s federally required environmental study hadn’t been finished. The current environmental impact statement is based on I-77 having no new general-purpose lanes, and between one and two new toll lanes in each direction.

Ned Curran, the Charlotte Chamber’s representative on the group, said he’s worried that starting a new environmental review could open the state up to litigation. The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill has sued to stop construction of the Garden Parkway in Gaston County, among other highway projects. The group has not spoken about the I-77 toll lanes either for or against.

Curran was a member of the N.C. Board of Transportation when the project was approved in 2016.

But some of the vocal opponents of the toll lanes said that shouldn’t be an issue.

Kurt Naas, a Cornelius commissioner who has led anti-toll lane group, said he thought the state could begin work quickly on a new environmental document, which would be nearly ready when the highway is finished at the end of this year.

“Is it possible to work these approvals in parallel?” Naas asked during Wednesday’s meeting.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Jim Puckett said the group shouldn’t be deterred by a possible delay of a year or two.

“When we talk about the time period of making changes, it’s considerably shorter than 50 years,” Puckett said. “If I have to wait a year or two to fix a road, that’s much better. We have a 50-year project that’s not designed to reduce congestion.”

Puckett was referring to the state’s 50-year contract with I-77 Mobility Partners to manage the toll lanes.

N.C. Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon formed the advisory group at the end of 2017. He said he was looking for advice about what to do with the project, which has sparked intense opposition around Lake Norman.

This was the group’s second meeting, held at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. The first meeting was closed to the public, but Wednesday’s meeting was open. The N.C. Turnpike Authority hopes the group can make a recommendation by April.

Trogdon has said that he is willing to consider all options.

They include allowing I-77 Mobility Partners to finish the project, and make some small modifications, such as giving a discount to commuters who use the toll lanes frequently. Another option is to allow the contractor to finish the project, and buy them out immediately and have the DOT take over the project.

The most popular option among toll-lane opponents is having the contractor finish the project and be bought out by the state. The DOT would then open the highway with general-purpose lanes.

The advisory group has not yet discussed how the state would pay for those options.

The group also discussed how I-77 traffic compares with other N.C. highways.

The DOT said the segment of I-77 between Exits 28 and 33 in Cornelius and Davidson is the most congested. It has only four lanes total, with as many as 93,000 cars each day. The average speed is 24 mph during peaks times.

There is a section of I-485 in south Charlotte between Providence Road and U.S. 74 that has a similar speed during rush hour of 24 mph. But it handles about 10,000 fewer vehicles a day.

The next-most congested section of highway was also on I-77 from Exits 19 to 28. The average speed there is 27 mph.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs