The Interstate 77 toll lane advisory group made a near-unanimous recommendation Thursday, saying the state should convert one of the planned toll lanes to a free lane.
The 12-member group didn't tell N.C. Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon how to do that. Some want the state to buy out the entire contract with Cintra, the Spanish company that's building the project. Others are willing to let Cintra finish and manage the project, and would be willing to pay the firm compensation for losing one of its toll lanes.
The group has met for most of 2018, trying to find a way out of the controversial project. In the final meeting, 10 of the 12 members said they were willing to compromise by keeping one toll lane, so long as they also received another free lane for all vehicles.
The representatives from the Charlotte Chamber and the Charlotte City Council said the project should move forward as planned.
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Trogdon said the DOT will study in detail the group's recommendation to make one toll lane free. Trogdon said he hopes to decide what to do by July.
"My goal is to solve the problem," he said.
He said the state would look for different ways to finance toll-lane changes, as Trogdon said he did when he found different ways to finance a new Interstate 85 bridge over the Yadkin River.
"That's my pledge," he said. "I want to provide a road map."
Mecklenburg Commissioner Jim Puckett, a member of the group, said he wants all new lanes under construction to be free.
"But that's not going to happen," he said. "It's not going to happen, and it's not politically possible."
He said keeping one toll lane and creating a new free lane would be a compromise.
Mike Russell of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce said he would prefer to have the project widened entirely with free lanes.
"But if we have one toll lane, that's fine," he said.
Representatives from Davidson, Huntersville, Cornelius and Mooresville agreed. Some members said they first thought the working group wouldn't accomplish anything. But many said they believe Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's DOT would attempt to modify the contract.
Some credit controversy over the I-77 toll lane project with giving Cooper a narrow victory over Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in November 2016.
Mecklenburg Commissioner Pat Cotham, a Democrat, opposes the toll lanes. During the meeting, she blamed the toll lane problem on McCrory.
"I think my governor wants to stay governor," she said.
After the meeting, Ned Curran, the former chair of the N.C. Board of Transportation, said he objected to Cotham's comments. Curran supported the project while on the board, and he said it should open as planned. He is the Charlotte Chamber's representative on the working group.
Curran said he thought Cotham's "partisan comments about gubernatorial engagement were unfortunate and chilling to the civility of the meeting. I think she has now set big expectations for how Gov. Cooper will respond to the study groups suggestions."
Cintra has said the project will be finished at the end of this year.
The $647 million project will add two toll lanes in each direction from uptown to Exit 28 in Cornelius. From Exit 28 to Exit 36 there will be one new express toll lane in each direction.
The working group said it's OK with one new toll lane in each direction from uptown to Exit 28. But they want a new free lane from uptown to Exit 36.
Puckett wants the state to buy out Cintra and collect the toll revenue. That money could be used to pay off the debt, he said.
If the state switched one of the lanes to a free lane, that would likely dramatically decrease the value of the toll lanes. Congestion would lessen, meaning people would have less incentive to spend money on tolls.