Commuters into North Carolina’s largest metropolitan region may face tough choices when toll lanes open on Interstate 77 later this year, but there’s still a chance that will never happen.

State and local politicians are at least giving lip service to options other than opening the politically unpopular toll lanes as planned, though a lack of transparency has made the situation difficult to observe.

Whether any of the processes now in motion will amount to more than talk also remains to be seen.

What happens with the I-77 toll lanes could also affect the future of potential toll routes and express lane projects on other North Carolina highways.

Crowded commuter route

Congestion on the stretch of I-77 north of Charlotte has been a fact of life for commuters for many years. As the population city’s northern suburbs has exploded, delays and standstill traffic on the interstate have become commonplace.

North Carolina’s Department of Transportation first responded with the creation of high-occupancy lanes, designated for use by vehicles carrying two or more people. But as the population continued to grow, the agency began taking steps to move forward with a solution less common in North Carolina, and far less popular in northern Mecklenburg County and southern Iredell County — toll lanes.

Construction on the $650 million project is scheduled to end later in 2018. However, there’s still a chance that drivers won’t ever have to pay a toll to travel that 26-mile stretch of interstate.

Public opposition to the project once it got underway was swift and loud, with many calling for the state to simply widen Interstate 77 using public funding, rather than maintaining the 50-year public-private partnership between the state and I-77 Mobility Partners, the private construction firm leading the project that is a subsidiary of the Spanish company Cintra.

Several years after the state and Cintra signed a contract, NCDOT hired a consultant, Mercator Advisers, to review the entire project and present options for alternatives to the toll lanes.

Alternative routes

The options in Mercator’s report, released in September 2017 to the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization — the metropolitan planning organization for Mecklenburg County, Iredell County and Union County — have been under consideration by the state and a local advisory group ever since.

Mercator said in its report that the contract between the state and I-77 Mobility Partners is “reasonable” but that “inconsistent public engagement has undermined confidence” in the project.

The report said the North Carolina Department of Transportation erred in not being transparent about important aspects of the process of entering the public-private partnership, responding to public concerns about the project and explaining the rationale behind choosing express lanes as an option for Interstate 77.

“Much of the public frustration with the Express Lanes Project can be attributed to the limited opportunity for public input during the project development period,” the Mercator report said.

“Many members of the public did not learn that the Express Lanes Project was being developed as a (public-private partnership) until after the procurement process was initiated.”

Mercator’s report included six options for the future of the toll lanes project:

  • Terminate the contract and allowing the state to finish construction and maintain the toll lanes.
  • Modify the contract with Cintra.
  • Reduce the number of toll lanes
  • Reduce the cost of the tolls.
  • Allow Cintra to complete the project but give the state the option of making additional improvements to Interstate 77
  • Allow Cintra to complete the project and then delete the tolling system, converting the toll lanes into general-purpose lanes.

Each of those options would likely cost the state millions of dollars, in some cases hundreds of millions of dollars.

But exactly how much that termination fee will be is largely dependent upon the timing of the state’s cancellation of the project and how much money private equity firms have invested.

An even bigger question for consumers is how much the tolls will actually cost — information that I-77 Mobility Partners and the state have so far refused to release to the public.

I-77 Mobility Partners says on its website that toll rates will be released before the lanes are opened, and after “several public meetings will occur to discuss toll rates and how to use the toll lanes prior to the first day of operations.”

What the company has confirmed, however, is that the tolls rates will fluctuate depending upon congestion on the interstate “to ensure that express lanes drivers travel at faster, more predictable rates of speed,” reportedly around 45 miles per hour.

Politically poisonous

The toll project was, and remains, politically toxic for some elected officials who supported it.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, narrowly lost re-election to Democrat Roy Cooper in 2016. According to some analysts, McCrory polled poorly in the northern Mecklenburg County districts that he won handily in 2012. Cooper beat McCrory by 10,000 votes.

North Mecklenburg and South Iredell conservative voters who didn’t support McCrory because of the toll issue, despite voting heavily for other Republicans such as Donald Trump, may have swung the election in Cooper’s favor.

Outrage over the toll lanes also affected local politics. Some incumbents in seats on town councils in Cornelius and Huntersville lost re-election in 2015 following campaigns by their opponents that linked them to the toll project.

Efforts in the legislature to cancel the project hit a wall in the state Senate. House Bill 954, filed in April 2016, passed the House 81-27, only to stall in the Senate transportation committee.

Public-private partnership

The express lanes project is being funded through a public-private partnership between I-77 Mobility Partners and the North Carolina Department of Transportation, with more than $90 million in funding provided by the state and $250 million from I-77 Mobility. The remaining funding is provided by a combination of bonds and money from the federal government for transportation projects.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation chose to use a public-private funding model after a feasibility study of using public funds to convert the high-occupancy lanes on Interstate 77 into toll lanes found that the revenue generated by the tolls would be insufficient to complete the project.

The state also applied for a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to pay, in part, for a smaller-scale $57 million express lanes project, but the federal government denied that grant application.

Following preliminary discussions about the project with four developers, including Cintra, the state set a deadline of March 31, 2014, for final proposals for the project. Cintra was the only firm that submitted a proposal and the state announced in April 2014 that it had selected the firm to construct the express lanes.

Local group’s voice

In late 2017, Gov. Cooper formed the I-77 Express Lanes Local Advisory Group to solicit input and recommendations from local politicians, business leaders and citizens about the future of the toll lanes project.

That group has met three times and has two more meetings scheduled for later in March.

The group’s first meeting, at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce facility in Cornelius, took place behind closed doors.

Participants in the meeting said it was primarily an introductory session. However, closing it to the public may have constituted a violation of the state’s open meetings law. The group’s subsequent meetings have been open to the public and the press.

The advisory group doesn’t have the power to craft policy or influence the decision-making process on the future of the toll lanes project directly. But Cooper has said that he’ll consider the group’s recommendations if and when any changes to the project are made.

The group has thus far spent much of its time discussing the options for the project that were presented in the Mercator Advisers report.

Mecklenburg County commissioners Jim Puckett and Pat Cotham, who both serve on the advisory group and have been vocal opponents of the toll project, did not respond to a request for comment.

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email or call 828-774-5290.

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