Politics & Government

DOT to rely on toll lanes for three Charlotte highway projects

The N.C. Department of Transportation reaffirmed its commitment to toll lanes Thursday, with a 10-year plan including them in the widening of three key Charlotte projects.

The plan would include express toll lanes on the widening of Interstate 485 from Rea Road to U.S. 74, Interstate 77 from uptown to the South Carolina line and U.S. 74 from uptown to Matthews.

The lanes would require motorists to pay a toll in return for a guaranteed speed of 45 mph. The existing free lanes would remain.

The state is already moving forward with a plan to build toll lanes on I-77 in north Mecklenburg, despite intense opposition from some residents. That plan would allow motorists to use the toll lanes for free if they have three or more passengers. It’s unclear whether the three new projects would allow free use for car pools.

The most ambitious of the projects – rebuilding I-77 in south Charlotte – is scheduled to begin in 2024. That’s the first time the state has committed to a start date for the project. The I-485 widening is scheduled to start in 2018. Widening and improving U.S. 74 would start in 2022.

One notable project that’s absent from the 10-year list is the proposed Garden Parkway in Gaston County, which would run from Charlotte Douglas International Airport, across the Catawba River and across south Gaston. The controversial toll road has been struggling to gain wide support and funding. Not being included on the 10-year plan further diminishes the likelihood the highway will be built.

Charlotte City Council member David Howard, who is vice chairman of the council’s transportation committee, said he doesn’t think the state will have to look exclusively to toll roads in the future.

“When you look at metro areas across the country, toll lanes are one of the tools,” Howard said. “But it’s not the only tool. There is more bus rapid transit, and more rapid transit overall.”

Gov. Pat McCrory has made it a priority to change how the state funds transportation projects.

He led a push to scrap the 1989 Equity Formula, which was used to determine how transportation dollars were doled out. McCrory, as Charlotte’s mayor, had complained that formula favored rural areas at the expense of cities.

McCrory said the old formula was one “in which, frankly, roads and transportation wasn’t always built based on congestion or safety or economic development. Sometimes it was based on politics.”

The new transportation formula, known as Strategic Transportation Investments, emphasizes priorities such as congestion relief, safety and economic development. It has generally been praised by Charlotte leaders as bringing more money to the region.

It’s possible Thursday’s list could be shuffled, however. Earlier this year, McCrory announced a plan to borrow more than $1 billion to jump-start a number of highway projects. A draft list of possible projects included some rural projects that had scored poorly on the state’s new formula. DOT has backed off that draft list of projects, saying nothing has been decided.

The Charlotte area already has a number of expensive highway projects under construction or in the planning stages, such as the widening of I-485 in south Charlotte and the completion of the outerbelt in northeast Charlotte, which is set for the spring. In addition, the state will add the toll lanes to I-77 in north Mecklenburg and extend the Lynx Blue Line to UNC Charlotte.

Those projects are either already funded or under construction. They aren’t included on the 10-year plan.

I-77 expansion

The state has long talked about the need to widen I-77 in south Charlotte, which carries roughly 160,000 vehicles a day.

But the project has been seen as so expensive – and with money tight – DOT hasn’t been able to make a firm commitment as to when the project would start.

The plan calls for DOT to begin buying right of way and to start moving utilities in fiscal year 2024, which starts in July 2023.

The construction portion of the project hasn’t been budgeted yet.

Highway engineers have said that I-77 south will be an incredibly complex project. One reason is that the entire highway must be overhauled, and all overhead bridges that cross it must be torn down and rebuilt.

The state plans to expand the highway from six lanes to 10 lanes. But the four new lanes will most likely be the express toll lanes.

Warren Cooksey, a spokesman for N.C. DOT, said the state hasn’t determined whether I-77 will be publicly funded or built through a public-private partnership, as will be the case with the north Mecklenburg toll lanes.

“It’s likely that a large portion of construction costs will be funded from tolls,” Cooksey said. “It hasn’t been determined how it will be done.”

In the meantime, DOT plans to resurface the existing highway over the next three years.

The other projects:

• In fiscal year 2017, DOT has budgeted $13.6 million to convert the existing busway on U.S. 74 into a toll lane. When that opens, it will be Charlotte’s first toll lane. The 10-year plan also calls for all of U.S. 74 to be turned into an expressway, starting in 2022, from Idlewild Road to Matthews.

• In fiscal year 2018, the state will begin construction on one new express toll lane in each direction on I-485, from Rea Road to U.S. 74. That project is budgeted for $145 million. DOT will also add a toll lane on the outerbelt from I-77 to Rea Road.

• There are also a number of smaller projects. In southwest Charlotte, Steele Creek Road south of I-485 will be widened to Shopton Road starting in 2024. The state also plans to widen Old Statesville Road from N.C. 24 to I-485, starting in 2024.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the state would add two new lanes in each direction on I-485 from Rea Road to U.S. 74.

Bruce Siceloff of The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.