What’s the alternative to the I-77 toll lanes?

The Observer editorial board

N.C. DOT officials believe toll lanes will help relief traffic snarls like this one on I-77 near Davidson.
N.C. DOT officials believe toll lanes will help relief traffic snarls like this one on I-77 near Davidson. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

If you’ve ever tried to make your way between uptown Charlotte and the Lake Norman area in peak rush hour traffic, you understand why commuters’ passions run so high over the state’s plan to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 through the area.

Rush-hour traffic snarls and stalls not just on I-77 but on seemingly every road running between Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson. The state’s plan to improve traffic flow by adding toll lanes – as opposed to free ones – has sparked a lawsuit and a citizen revolt that swept Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain and other toll supporters out of office.

Now Republican Rep. Charles Jeter is calling for a summit on the toll lane issue, hoping to bring state officials and local residents together to find new solutions. It’s hard to say just how much jeopardy the toll lanes might be in, but given Gov. Pat McCrory’s tough reelection prospects, the toll project – once seen as a done deal – might still be in peril.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, an outspoken toll lane critic, told the editorial board Wednesday that he’s certain the rising pressure will force the state to kill its contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of the Spanish firm Cintra.

If that happens, DOT officials have said the state will owe Cintra up to $100 million in break-up fees. Puckett believes the cost would be offset by some $77 million the state is already planning to pay for interchanges tied to the toll lanes. He believes the state should admit it made a big mistake, pay for it and start over.

But other North Carolina taxpayers aren’t going to feel quite so resolute about spending millions of highway dollars and getting nothing more than a lesson learned to show for it. Lawmakers from outside north Mecklenburg will want to hear a viable alternative, not just a toll-killing plan that leaves the state mired in a messy lawsuit with Cintra or on the hook for millions of dollars.

Further complicating matters is the broader context of where the state stands on road financing. With transportation money in short supply, state officials have said Interstate 485 is likely to be the last large-scale highway project built in the Charlotte area without toll lanes. If the state makes an exception for north Mecklenburg, commuters in Matthews and Mint Hill would surely seek to have toll lanes stripped from improvement plans for Independence Boulevard.

Local leaders initially misread the I-77 toll-lane project’s appeal. Voters corrected them at the ballot box. But what now? Backing out could put off any expansion of I-77 for a decade or more.

Toll opponents need to present a politically and financially viable alternative. It should minimize the state’s costs and offer congestion relief for north Mecklenburg, all without elbowing in front of other road-hungry regions.

If such a solution exists, we hope to hear it soon.