By DAVID BORAKS
Cornelius commissioners on Tuesday added their voices to those questioning the state’s plans to construct toll lanes to help pay for widening I-77 north of Charlotte.
In a 4-0 vote, the board approved a resolution asking the Lake Norman Transportation Commission – a regional lobbying group that includes Cornelius – to study how the jammed interstate might be widened with general purpose lanes instead of tolls.
LISTEN to an audio replay of the board’s discussion below.
The resolution also calls on the state Department of Transportation to acknowledge and review any new ideas the LNTC comes up with before it moves ahead with its plans.
The Cornelius board’s resolution was carefully worded and did not go as far as some toll opponents have gone in demanding that the state halt the toll lanes project. Nonetheless, it was the latest sign of discontent over the state’s plans to expand I-77 by building High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes from north Charlotte to Mooresville.
On Jan. 15, a citizens group called Widen I-77 called on the state to halt the project and expressed concerns over plans to hire a private company to build and manage the toll lanes. And last week, Iredell County Commissioners signaled their opposition to toll lanes by deleting the concept from a list of transportation projects they endorsed.
Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy has been pushing the board to consider some kind of resolution on the I-77 widening issue. As the board discussed it Tuesday, he acknowledged that toll lanes might end up being the best way to expand the highway sooner.
But since the NC DOT’s plans have “a lot of momentum,” he said local officials needed to act quickly if they want the state to take another look at alternatives to tolls.
Mr. Gilroy said the board should “send a signal that we want a good faith effort” from the DOT to look at alternatives. With opponents of toll lanes growing louder, and with a new Republican governor from Charlotte now in the statehouse, he said, “We’ve got a chance, if you will, as a squeaky wheel.”
I-77 is congested at daily rush hours from Huntersville to Mooresville, a section where the road is currently just two lanes. The problem is that the state lacks the funding to widen the badly congested highway immediately. So state officials have proposed building High Occupancy Toll lanes, or HOT lanes, to help pay for the widening of I-77 north of Charlotte. Officials say tolls would help pay for the work much sooner than planned – perhaps 20 years sooner.
Officials also say tolls would encourage carpooling. HOT lanes would be free for cars with multiple passengers, but other drivers would have to pay a fee to use the lanes.
The state’s plan also envisions that the road would be built along with a private company, though what’s being called “public private partnership,” or P3.
By incorporating tolls and working with a private partner, the project was able to qualify for additional federal funds that require those tactics. That moved it up the state’s priority list for construction. The state has said it hopes to pick a private partner this summer.
The project calls for two HOT lanes in each direction from the Brookshire Freeway/I-277 in Charlotte to Exit 28/Catawba Avenue in Cornelius. One HOT lane in each direction would be built from Exit 28 to Exit 36/NC 150 in Mooresville. Officials say two extra lanes aren’t possible on the northern section because of the narrow causeways over Lake Norman in Cornelius and Davidson.
The private partner would carry out construction and then operate the road, possibly for as long as 50 years. It would have the power to set and collect tolls.
Opponents, including a Cornelius-based citizens group called Widen I-77, say the HOT lanes project is too expensive, won’t relieve congestion, and would lock the state into a contract for too long.
The state’s plan for HOT lanes came after state lawmakers asked the DOT to come up with a way to speed up the widening of the main interstate from Charlotte to the Lake Norman area. Cornelius Commissioner Chuck Travis reminded fellow commissioners that they endorsed the HOT lanes project previously, when it was presented as the best way to get I-77 widened early.
But Mr. Travis also said Tuesday he thinks local officials may be willing to take another look at the HOT lanes project. Mr. Travis chairs the Lake Norman Transportation Commission and represents the town on the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO), which helps set priorities for transportation projects.
Mr. Travis said the Lake Norman Transportation Commission already has a meeting planned to discuss the issue, on Feb. 13 at 7pm at Cornelius Town Hall. State officials will be there to help explain the HOT lanes project and discuss how the public-private partnership would work.
Jan. 22, 2013, Cornelius Town Board resolution, “Resolution in support of an expedited study of the widening of I-77″ (PDF)
Listen to an audio replay of Tuesday night’s Cornelius Town Board discussion of the HOT lanes resolution. The segment opens with the discussion in progress, and Commissioner Dave Gilroy discussing why he favors a resolution. Other voices include Mayor Lynette Rinker, who was chairing the meeting, and Commissioners Chuck Travis, John Bradford and Jeff Hare. Click the play button to start. Can’t see the player or hear the audio? CLICK HERE> (MP3, 20 minutes)