Eric Frazier

What’s driving the move to toll lanes?

By Eric Frazier

I-77 northbound traffic slowly advances at a crawl during the rush-hour commute near the Gilead Road bridge at Exit 23 in Huntersville.
I-77 northbound traffic slowly advances at a crawl during the rush-hour commute near the Gilead Road bridge at Exit 23 in Huntersville. Staff Photo

Folks are fighting mad over the toll lanes headed for Interstate 77 through north Mecklenburg. And folks in south Mecklenburg aren’t exactly quivering with anticipation over the toll lanes headed for Interstate 485 in the south.

Toll lanes are headed for Independence Boulevard and the eventual widening of I-77 south to the state line, too.

Why, many keep asking, can’t we just have more free lanes?

The answer’s simple: We haven’t been willing to pay for them, at least not with our state and federal tax dollars. Thus the advent of what traffic engineers call “managed lanes.”

North Carolina isn’t by itself on this. States are turning to high-occupancy toll lanes and other managed lanes as mounting needs increasingly outstrip road-building dollars. Federal officials say the total of vehicle miles traveled in this country has soared by more than 70 percent in the past two decades, but highway capacity has grown by just 0.3 percent.

Back in 2009, as local transportation planners surveyed the Charlotte region’s road needs, they found that only 34 out of the 310 projects on their 2035 long-range plan could expect money from traditional federal and state revenue sources.

That same year, a state report said North Carolina would need to spend $65 billion to meet all of its transportation needs by 2030. Among the report’s suggestions: A proposal to toll Interstate 77 from the S.C. line to Statesville.

That’s how we have arrived at this juncture, where it appears the state has added its last free lane to a major road in Charlotte.

As blasphemous as it might sound to the toll opponents in north Mecklenburg, managed lanes are gaining traction nationally. As of last year, there were about 18 managed lanes projects operating nationwide, with about as many more in the pipeline.

A 2009 study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that, despite some mixed results, high occupancy tolls and other road pricing measures do help relieve congestion.

The specific contract beneath the I-77 toll project might be flawed. But so is the thinking that we can just keep building more general purpose lanes. There’s only so much we’re willing to spend. At least the toll lanes implicitly nudge people toward considering carpools and mass transit.

That’s a good thing. It’s also good that lawmakers are double-checking under the hood of the I-77 contract. If it’s flawed, they need to seek remedies.

But as long as they’re under there, they should think about how we arrived at this point.

They didn’t want to raise taxes – even for a need as popular as expanding a congested interstate. Instead, they financed it with private money and user fees, and the intended users screamed bloody murder, anyway.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sympathy for a politician. Almost.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

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