By DAVID BORAKS
The state Department of Transportation’s proposal to adopt toll lanes to help finance a widening of I-77 north of Charlotte continues to draw attention in north Mecklenburg, in public and private settings. A divided Cornelius Town Board again this week declined to take a public position against the idea. And next week, the North Meck Republican Women will host a meeting Tuesday that will feature an outspoken critic of toll lanes.
The Republican Women’s dinner is scheduled Tuesday, Dec. 11, in Huntersville on plans to finance the widening of I-77 north of Charlotte using high occupancy toll lanes. Kurt Naas, a Cornelius resident who opposes the toll-lane proposal, will speak. So will Bill Thunberg, executive director of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, which has expressed support for “managed lanes” tactics. (Details below.)
Congestion on I-77 is a daily headache for commuters from the Lake Norman area, and planners say congestion will worsen unless the road is widened. But funding is limited and the project isn’t even on the state or regional priority lists for another decade or more. So officials are considering alternative funding options, such as partial toll lanes, to help pay for the project.
The N.C. Department of Transportation has proposed building two high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on I-77 from Fifth Street in Charlotte north to N.C. 150 (Exit 36) in Mooresville. Carpoolers, van-pools, motorcycles, and public buses would be able to use the HOT lanes free, while other travelers would have the option of paying to use the extra lanes.
The toll lanes likely would be built and operated by a private company through a “public-private partnership.” Toll revenues would help the private operator pay off private financing to build the lanes. State and some local officials say the idea is the best way to widen the road sooner than currently planned, which may not be until 2025 or 2030.
The ball is already rolling on at least part of the HOT lanes plan: State and regional officials are completing work on a Request for Proposals that would be sent to potential bidders. They hope to have bids by March, Bill Thunberg, executive director of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, said Wednesday.
SOME DON’T LIKE HOT LANES
But critics of the toll plan have emerged, including Mr. Naas, who is a member of the Cornelius Transportation Advisory Board. He and others say toll lanes won’t solve the problem, that the economics don’t work and that he thinks the state should be compelled to come up with money to expand I-77 with general purpose lanes, not toll lanes.
Mr. Naas has been urging the Cornelius Town Board to take a public stand against the HOT lanes plan. At the board’s Sept. 4 meeting, he said he thinks there’s money in the state budget to expand the interstate without tolls. Public pressure could persuade the DOT to divert money from elsewhere, he said. Or, he suggested, area towns might band together to issue bonds to pay for it.
He has found a sympathetic ear in Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy, who said at the September board meeting that area public officials have “sleepwalked” and failed to question the proposal for HOT lanes.
But so far, none of the area’s official bodies have come out in opposition to a plan that many public officials believe is the best way to get I-77 widened as soon as possible. Some business leaders also have expressed support for the idea.
On Monday night, the issue came up yet again at the Cornelius Town Board, where Mr. Gilroy offered a resolution that would have called on the Lake Norman Transportation Commission (LNTC) develop an alternate plan for widening I-77 without tolls. (The LNTC is a lobbying group formed by the towns of Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville and Mooresville to push for transportation funding for the area.)
Commissioner Gilroy said his only goal was to ensure that alternatives get a hearing. “Have we exhausted the options? Could we build one or two general purpose lanes on DOT dollars? Is that feasible?” he asked.
The board took no action, though Commissioner Chuck Travis, who chairs the LNTC, said he would discuss the idea with representatives from other towns. The LNTC previously has come out in support of “managed lanes,” such as HOT lanes.
Mayor Jeff Tarte said during Mondays’ discussion that neither the Cornelius Town Board nor the LNTC have any official role in decisions about the road. And in a comment clearly aimed at critics, he said state officials are actually looking at expanding the use of tolls to other projects.
“The state wants to change the policy to tolling,” Mayor Tarte said. “Those that use the road, pay to use the road.” He said the state is looking at toll lanes to help pay for expansion of I-77 from Charlotte south to the South Carolna line, on US 74, and on the south loop of I-485 in Charlotte, from I-77 to Rea Road/N.C. 51.
Mayor Tarte, who will step down in January to become the area’s new state Senator, also brought politics into the discussion. The mayor, a Republican, said his party has been the “major supporter” of the shift to using toll lanes.
REPUBLICAN WOMEN HOST MEETING
The North Mecklenburg Republican Women will host a dinner Tuesday, Dec. 11, in Huntersville on the proposal for widening of I-77 north of Charlotte using high occupancy toll lanes. Mr. Naas and Mr. Thunberg are the speakers. The session will include a Q&A with speakers. Registration begins at 6pm and the dinner at 6:30pm at NorthStone Club, 15801 NorthStone Drive, Huntersville.
“We believe this is a very important issue for not only commuters of I-77 but also for all residents in the region,” club President Mary Lou Richardson said in an announcement. “NMRW looks forward to hosting an insightful discussion on this issue so that citizens are informed about the plans for adding toll lanes to I-77.”
The dinner is $20, cash or check, payable at the door. For reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Dec. 3, 2012, Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy’s proposed Town Board resolution seeking alternatives to tolls. (PDF) The board took no action on the resolution.
MUMPO web page devoted to the improvements on I-77 from I-277 to Exit 36.
Aug. 2, 2012, “Workshop looks at plans for Exit 28 to 36 toll lanes.”
May 10, 2012, “Studying plans for I-77: Toll lanes ahead?”
North Carolina Department of Transportation HOT Lanes Summary Presentation
NC Quickpass electronic toll system web page. The system is currently used only on the Triangle Expressway in Raleigh.