Politics & Government

Get ready to start paying tolls: DOT chief says state won’t buy out lanes now

The much-maligned toll lanes on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte could be made more driver-friendly, N.C. Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon said Wednesday, but he did not recommend the state buy out a private developer’s contract to immediately convert some of them to free lanes.

The state’s ultimate goal is to take over the toll lane project and turn one of the new lanes on I-77 into a general purpose lane, Trogdon said, but that would take years and require hundreds of millions of dollars.

Speaking to a local advisory group that’s been searching for a way out of the controversial 26-mile project since January, Trogdon said the N.C. Department of Transportation will instead start work immediately on negotiations to improve the existing plan. Possible changes include placing a cap on toll fees and opening shoulders to traffic during peak periods.

Trogdon said he’s heard “loud and clear” that local residents want the state to buy out its contract with Cintra, the Spanish company that is building the lanes and will collect the toll revenue for 50 years, but doing so right now isn’t feasible.

“It would be hard to say how we get to this point today... (but) we will not lose sight of that desire,” he said.

Despite the piles of red dirt, metal and construction equipment that line the route, NCDOT officials said the toll lanes will open by the end of the year. That means residents who use the lanes will be paying tolls to Cintra while any negotiations take place over modifications to the contract or a buyout.

N.C. Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon answers questions after the I-77 toll lanes advisory group meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 15. Ely Portillo

The toll project is adding two toll lanes in each direction from uptown to Exit 28, in Cornelius, and one new toll lane in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36. Pricing hasn’t been set, but the tolls would be “dynamic,” meaning it would cost more to use the lanes as traffic worsened and less as congestion eased. Capping those tolls, as Trogdon suggests, could limit the amount drivers pay, especially during peak times when the tolls are most expensive.

Among elements of a plan Trogdon laid out to improve and expand the existing project in the short term: frequent-user toll discounts and the ability for medium-size trucks to use express lanes.

Even those short-term measures would require negotiations with Cintra, and Trogdon said he expects to start that process immediately. A plan for how to implement the changes could be ready within six months. The NCDOT could be ready to put a contract for building more capacity on the I-77 shoulder out to bid by next summer, Trogdon said.

It wasn’t clear what leverage the NCDOT has to change the contract, however, or why Cintra would be interested in limiting its revenue while also knowing the state is planning to eventually buy out the toll lanes. When asked what he would do if Cintra simply says no, Trogdon paused for a few seconds.

“We’ll keep working,” he said. “The complete agreement itself is about 1,500 pages long, and I haven’t read it lately.”

Eventually, the state might be able to convert one toll lane to a general purpose free lane between Huntersville and Cornelius and add one general purpose lane between Cornelius and Mooresville. But Trogdon said that would require finding the money to fund those improvements and payments to the toll lane’s owner, and the I-77 project would have to compete for funding with other road projects in the state. It could be years before that happens.

Projected costs for that option run from $550 million to $800 million, the NCDOT said.

The I-77 toll lane construction site, as seen from the Exit 28 overpass in Cornelius. Ely Portillo

Under the state’s Strategic Transportation Investments law, transportation projects are scored under data-driven analysis. Projected scoring of buying out the contract came in too low to be eligible for funding right away, NCDOT said. Trogdon said the most pressing thing is to find a good alternative that scores well on the state’s transportation funding formula.

“We believe we can work with everyone here to do that,” he said. But that will take years: If the state scores the toll lane buyout under the next round of STI funding, and the project scores well, the process could be complete by the mid-2020s.

The Observer asked I-77 Mobility Partners — the Cintra subsidiary that is financing, building and will operate the $647 million toll lanes project — whether the company would negotiate with NCDOT over issues such as capping tolls, and whether such proposals are feasible. In response, a spokeswoman said the company hadn’t been told of Trogdon’s recommendations beforehand.

“I-77 Mobility Partners only learned this afternoon of the recommendations outlined by the North Carolina Department of Transportation,” Jean Leier said in a statement. “We remain focused on completing construction and improving the commute for a large number of motorists in the greater Charlotte and Lake Norman region when the express lanes open later this year.”

‘This is torture’

Some advisory group members weren’t happy with the short-term options Trogdon outlined.

“We’re 31 points down and we’re kicking a field goal,” said John Hettwer of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. After the meeting, another member compared the presentation with the famously bungled Geraldo Rivera segment in which he opened Al Capone’s vault on live on television only to find it empty.

But Trogdon said the state must pursue realistic paths forward.

“We want to advance today the things that we know will have a greater probability of success,” he told the advisory group. “That particular option of buying out the contract will not be competitive.”

When the idea of privately operated toll lanes was first discussed more than seven years ago, NCDOT said allowing a private firm to build the lanes and collect the toll revenue would allow the project to move forward years or even decades sooner than it would otherwise.

Construction on the toll lanes started almost three years ago, and growing congestion around the miles of orange barrels, trucks and construction machinery fueled further opposition from drivers.

“This is torture up here,” Mecklenburg Commissioner Pat Cotham said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Toll lane opponents had made clear before the meeting that they wanted one of the lanes converted into a free, general purpose lane and Cintra out of the picture. In May, 10 of the 12 members agreed to recommend the state should pursue such a solution.

After the meeting, State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican who represents much of the area the toll project will cross, said he was “massively frustrated” with the outcome. In a statement, he blamed Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, for failing to cancel the project.

“I will take the responsibility for securing the necessary funds for that cancellation, as I have already done once in the Senate,” Tarte said. “I will work to pass legislation to fund and enact cancellation of tolling I-77 in the 2019 long session. If we cannot get this done together in 2019, we all deserve to go home.”

His opponent, Democrat Natasha Marcus, said in a statement that she supports the short-term contract negotiations with Cintra, and called on the legislature to find a way to pay for the toll lane cancellation.

“Unfortunately, we cannot get there while the GOP controls the legislature,” Marcus said, calling the project a “debacle.”

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The toll lanes have become a potent issue in state politics. Opponents credit anger over the toll lanes in part with flipping votes in north Mecklenburg and Iredell counties against former Gov. Pat McCrory, helping secure Gov. Roy Cooper’s narrow win in 2016.

Part of the anger over the project stemmed from the presence of a foreign-owned company that would set and manage toll rates. As a private firm, Cintra would have an incentive to maximize toll revenue to boost profits that the N.C. Turnpike Authority wouldn’t necessarily share. Toll lanes on I-485 between I-77 and U.S. 74 haven’t stirred similar opposition, in part because they would be publicly operated and include a free, general purpose lane as well.

A construction worker on the Interstate 77 toll lanes project in Charlotte was critically injured after being hit by a car on Monday. File photo

How we got here

The idea of toll lanes on I-77 goes back almost a decade. Here are some of the key dates:

2009: A feasibility study looks at the idea of turning high occupancy vehicle lanes into express toll lanes through Exit 28.

2010: The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization resolves to put toll lanes on I-77, I-485 and U.S. 74.

2011: The N.C. Department of Transportation decides to develop the I-77 toll lanes as a public-private partnership, with a private company building the lanes in order to speed up the project.

April 2014: Cintra is selected to build the project. State and federal funds will make up only $95 million of the total $647 million projected cost.

November 2015: Cintra starts construction on the toll lanes as opposition builds, with towns such as Cornelius passing resolutions against the toll lanes and lawsuits filed to block the project. .

Jan. 2016: Charlotte City Council and the CRTPO vote to support the toll lanes, keeping the project moving forward.

Apr. 2017: Mercator, an NCDOT consultant hired to review the project, says that public anger over the tolls is intense enough to provide a “potential justification” for canceling the contract. The group later recommends the NCDOT consider letting Cintra finish building the project and then buy it before the lanes open.

Jan. 2018: A new local advisory group created by NCDOT to study the toll lanes starts meeting in Lake Norman.

May 2018: The local advisory group recommends the state find a way to cancel the toll lane contract with Cintra and make one of the toll lanes free.

I-77 accidents

The Observer would like to talk to drivers about accidents and hazardous driving conditions in the toll lane work zone. Please contact reporter Bruce Henderson at 704-358-5051 or bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com.

Portillo: 704-358-5041