By DAVID BORAKS
Lake Norman area economic development leaders have joined the debate over how to widen I-77 north of Charlotte, saying they support the state DOT’s plan to complete the project using High Occupancy Toll lanes.
The chairman and director of the Lake Norman Regional Economic Development Corp. say it’s critical to widen I-77 as soon as possible. They say HOT lanes, also known as managed lanes, are the best way to get the job done.
“When you talk to corporations, they ask questions about a region’s plans for growth. They also ask about access to airports and how to ensure goods and services get to market,” Jerry Broadway, the EDC’s executive director, said in a statement sent to area reporters.
“Will it cost the area to NOT have managed lanes? I believe it would,” Mr. Broadway said.
EDC chairman Mike Griffin said the state’s road funding process has left out the Lake Norman area, leaving any I-77 widening project years away. The toll lanes proposal will help pay for the road improvements sooner, he said.
“We simply cannot wait any longer for additional lanes on I-77,” Mr. Griffin said in the statement. The NCDOT’s process for deciding who gets what road improvements puts I-77 widening too far down the road. We need to find a solution now and make sure the state puts the I-77 widening money in our control when it is appropriated years from now.
“We should then appropriate this money for additional projects within our region that we see necessary to accommodate existing and future growth. I believe the managed lane concept is our best option for widening I-77 as soon as possible. We look forward to working with our state leaders to search for more equitable ways to fund future NCDOT projects,” Mr. Griffin said.
The EDC works with the towns of Cornelius, Huntersville and Davidson to recruit businesses. The organization also provided comments by Wayne Hoffman, President of Huntersville-based Forbo Siegling LLC, who agrees that the area can’t wait for I-77 to be widened.
“Moving forward now is critical. Reliance on traditional funding models will only cause us to fall backward at an accelerating rate. The state is justified in looking at alternative funding models to accelerate the I-77 solution,” he said.
The officials’ comments stepped up the debate over the state’s plans for the I-77 widening project, which has attracted opposition lately from citizens opposed to toll lanes. 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 with a private operator for too long.
Elected officials from area towns also are receiving private briefings from DOT officials and consultants this week. In a note to Cornelius commissioners, Cornelius Mayor Lynette Rinker said local officials are hearing from constituents about the project.
“The intent of these meetings is to provide you one-on-one access to the people who are working on the project and to give you the opportunity to have your questions and concerns addressed by them face-to-face,” Mayor Rinker wrote in an email to fellow board members.
The meetings include consultants, DOT District Engineer Lewis Mitchell, and other DOT officials. (A public meeting with DOT officials is scheduled next week. See below.)
Meanwhile, the Cornelius Town Board also is pushing for a second look at the toll-lane plan. The board approved a resolution Jan. 21 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.
STATE TO CHOOSE PRIVATE COMPANY
The state’s plan envisions the road would be built with the help of a private company, through 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 not available for other road projects. That moved the I-77 north of Charlotte up the state’s priority list.
The state has said it hopes to pick a private partner this summer. Construction could begin in 2014.
Officials say tolls would help pay for the work much sooner than planned – perhaps 20 years sooner. And the 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 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.
LNTC MEETING FEB. 13
The Lake Norman Transportation Commission will host an “education and information” session for local elected officials on the I-77 HOT lanes project on Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 7pm, at Cornelius Town Hall, 21445 Catawba Ave., Cornelius. Speakers include toll-lanes expert David Ungemah, of Parsons Brinckerhoff. He has worked on road pricing projects in North Carolina and elsewhere around the country. The meeting is open to the public.
RELATED LINKS AND COVERAGE
Lake Norman Regional Economic Development Corp., www.lakenormanregion.com
Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission, LakeNormanTrans.org
Jan. 22, 2013, CorneliusNews.net, “Cornelius commissioners want state to reconsider I-77 tolls