Politics & Government

Here’s how much it will cost to use the I-77 toll lanes when they open this year

Driving the whole length of the new toll Interstate 77 toll lanes will cost up to $6.55 when they open later this year, and that will increase to a maximum of $9.40 after the first six months.

Those are the peak toll rates to drive the full 26-mile project, which runs north from uptown Charlotte to Mooresville. Under the initial pricing scheme, which will apply for the first six months, a round-trip during weekday rush hour from Mooresville to uptown would cost $13.10. Off-peak maximum tolls would range from $2.45 to $4.20, depending on the day and time.

Drivers who don’t go the whole length will only pay for the segments they drive. For example, a trip from uptown to I-485 during peak time will cost $2.55. A trip from Sam Furr Road to Exit 36 during off-peak hours will cost $2.

I-77 Mobility Partners revealed prices for the tolls earlier this month, when the private company was required to hold a public hearing on the tolls. Although I-77 Mobility Partners collected public feedback, it’s not required to adjust rates in response.

The company also said not all segments of the toll lanes will be open by the end of the year, as they were scheduled to be. The northern section of the project is closer to completion, while crews are still building bridges and paving lanes closer to uptown. It’s unclear exactly how much of the road will still be under construction at the beginning of 2019, and weather could impact how fast work proceeds.

“A majority of the express lanes will be open by the end of the year,” said Jean Leier, spokeswoman for I-77 Mobility Partners. The company is a subsidiary of Spanish infrastructure firm Cintra, which is building the toll lanes and will collect revenue for 50 years under a deal with the state of North Carolina.

The toll lanes have become an explosive political issue, stirring years of simmering discontent and open rage among voters in north Mecklenburg and Iredell counties who feel they’ve been cheated out of expanded roads even as congestion worsened for decades. But despite efforts to stop the project or cancel the contract with Cintra, the lanes are only a few months away from opening to drivers.

For the first six months, tolls will change on a set schedule throughout the day (You can see toll rates per segment at www.I77express.com). Peak times, which will have the highest tolls, are defined as 6:30 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays.

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After the opening six months, I-77 Mobility Partners will start “dynamic” pricing. Rates will change as often as every five minutes, based on demand.

Once dynamic pricing kicks in, tolls to drive the whole length will range from $2.45 during slower times to $9.40 when traffic is heaviest. A round trip for the whole road could cost anywhere from $4.90 to $18.80 under that pricing structure. Cintra has said those minimum and maximum rates could be adjusted in the future.

“Everything we learn from this period will inform our decisions in the future,” said Javier Tamargo, CEO of I-77 Mobility Partners.

I-77 toll lane construction continues at I-277 north of uptown Charlotte. The 26-mile project from Mooresville to uptown Charlotte was supposed to finish late this year, but work will carry into 2019, state highway officials said. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

There’s one other wrinkle in the cost of tolls. The posted rates are for people with an electronic toll transponder, such as the EZ Pass or NC QuickPass. Bill-by-mail rates, which will be operated via license plate readers for drivers without transponders, will be more than 50 percent higher, at least during the first six months before dynamic pricing starts.

The 26-mile toll lane project will add 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. I-77 Mobility Partners is footing most of the $647 million construction bill (The company has spent $240 million and taken on $289 million in debt so far, Leier said) and will receive the toll revenue in exchange.

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Democrats and Republicans in state government have come to agree that the toll lane contract should be canceled, but they don’t agree on how. Republicans, who control the state legislature with a veto-proof majority, are demanding Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, cancel the contract and then let the legislature appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for it.

Cooper’s administration has said it would be irresponsible to cancel the contract without knowing where funding would come from, and that the legislature should figure out how to pay for the cancellation first. Cooper’s transportation secretary is trying to negotiate concessions with Cintra to help drivers, such as caps on toll rates, the ability for some trucks to use the toll lanes and opening up the shoulder along parts of the highway to drivers during rush hour.

Portillo: 704-358-5041