Politics & Government

After years of delay, I-485 toll lanes are coming. Here’s how they will work.

After years of delays, the state is poised to award a design and construction contract for new Interstate 485 toll lanes later this year, with construction starting in 2019.

The N.C. Department of Transportation held an open house Wednesday night for the project, which will add an express toll lane in each direction from Interstate 77 to U.S. 74. The $300 million project will also add a general-purpose free lane from Rea Road to Providence Road, which may relieve a rush-hour bottleneck on its own.

Wednesday’s open house attracted about 220 residents, who were mostly curious about the project.

That’s in contrast to the anger over toll lanes under construction on Interstate 77 north, where DOT turned over a project to a private developer and did not add any new free lanes. Facing intense opposition, the state is considering ways to modify the I-77 contract with the Spanish firm Cintra, or possibly canceling it completely.

State officials have been bracing for the public to mobilize against the I-485 project, or at least question it. But so far opposition has been quiet, although that could change as the construction date draws closer.

“I’m not upset about the tolls,” said George Conner of Weddington, who attended Wednesday’s meeting in Matthews. “But this is like most highway construction projects — it’s 10 to 20 years late. This won’t be enough. They will have to do more.”

Derrick Coleman of Charlotte said he wishes the new lanes would be free, but he said he is resigned to more toll lanes.

“But I realize that’s how things work now,” he said.

The city of Charlotte and DOT envision a network of express toll lanes throughout the region, giving motorists a guaranteed travel time in exchange for paying a toll.

In addition to toll lanes on I-485 and I-77 north, the state plans to add toll lanes to U.S. 74 and I-77 south, from uptown to the S.C. state line. The state is also opening a new toll highway, the Monroe Expressway.

The Monroe Expressway and the I-77 north toll lanes are scheduled to be finished at the end of this year.

If DOT awards a design-build contract later this year, construction on the I-485 toll lanes would likely begin in the summer of 2019. The lanes would open in late 2022, DOT said.

There are significant differences between the I-77 and I-485 toll lanes.

The biggest is that DOT will build, own and operate the I-485 toll lanes. On I-77, the current contract gives Cintra the right to manage the toll lanes for 50 years. Cintra will set the toll rates, and the firm’s goal is to maximize revenue.

For the I-485 project, DOT is not depending on the toll revenues to pay off any construction debt. The state said the toll revenue will be used to maintain the electronic tolling equipment, and any surplus revenue would be used for additional improvements to I-485.

“We aren’t trying to maximize revenue as a private partner might,” said Rodger Rochelle, an engineer with the N.C. Turnpike Authority, which would manage the project for DOT.

He said the authority will look to set toll revenues high enough to keep traffic flowing.

“We want to get as many people through (the toll lanes) as possible,” he said.

DOT can also add new toll lanes or free lanes to I-485 if there is a need. On I-77, Cintra has a 50-year noncompete clause, and DOT must compensate the firm if it adds capacity to I-77.

Another difference is that much of I-77 in north Mecklenburg has never been widened, through Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson. Residents there said it was unfair they had waited decades for more lanes, but were only given toll lanes instead.

Earlier this decade, DOT widened I-485 from I-77 to Rea Road. That reduced congestion significantly.

And the new toll lane project will add a free lane from Read Road to Providence Road.

“We are trying to eliminate a bottleneck,” said Scott Cole, division engineer for the N.C. DOT who oversees the Charlotte region.

The I-485 express lanes will have certain entrance and exit points. For instance, for motorists entering I-485 from I-77 southbound, they will be first able to access the toll lanes just before Westinghouse Boulevard. On the outer loop of I-485, there will be four access points for the toll lanes between I-77 and U.S. 74.

There also will be two “direct connection” access points, where motorists can merge directly onto the lanes.

DOT is holding a second information meeting on the I-485 toll lanes 4-7 p.m. Thursday at Pineville United Methodist Church, 110 S. Polk St. in Pineville.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs