CORNELIUS, N.C. -- Managed lanes like the kind being considered on Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Mooresville guarantee congestion-free, safe and reliable travel, a national managed lanes expert told Lake Norman area elected officials and residents Wednesday night.
Since 2011, the state has planned to convert I-77’s high-occupancy vehicle lanes to toll lanes, saying it doesn’t otherwise have the money to expand the interstate. Without tolls, I-77’s widening would take many more years, officials said.
Motorists using such lanes no longer need to factor the possibility of traffic delays into their trips, said David Ungemah, national managed lanes director for global consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.
“Congestion-free travel is what I’m passionate about,” Ungemah told the crowd at Cornelius Town Hall.
The Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission invited Ungemah so elected officials could learn more about such lanes and where else they’re used, from Atlanta to Salt Lake City to Orange County, Calif., where Ungemah consulted on one of the nation’s first such projects.
Ungemah said managed lanes, or toll lanes, have been shown to speed travel through typically congested metro areas for motorists who pay to use the lanes. On average, about 15 percent to 20 percent of motorists on a highway with managed lanes use the lanes, he said.
Ungemah, however, didn’t address the N.C. Department of Transportation’s plan to select a private consortium in August to build and operate the I-77 toll lanes. Construction is set to begin in summer 2014, with some segments opening in 2016, state transportation officials have said.
Former Mooresville Mayor Bill Thunberg, the commission’s executive director, said the commission will address the planned use of a public-private partnership for I-77 toll lanes at its meeting on March 13 at a location to be determined. The commission includes elected officials and town managers from Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville.
The project calls for adding two toll lanes on northbound and southbound I-77 between the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. Cars with at least three occupants would avoid a toll to use the lanes.
One toll lane in each direction would continue between Exit 28 and Exit 36. The causeways over Lake Norman aren't wide enough to accommodate two high-occupancy toll lanes in each direction north of Exit 28, former DOT engineer Barry Moose has said.
Toll rates would vary throughout the day depending on traffic volume, though no rates have been proposed. No toll booths will be required; drivers will pay electronically.
The Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission backed the use of toll lanes on I-77 in 2010. Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville and the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization also have backed such lanes. The Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce endorsed the idea in 2011, president and chief executive officer Bill Russell said.
But the toll-lane project has met resistance in recent months from a lake area community group called Widen I-77 and a Cornelius advisory board that in early January urged the state to consider all options - not only tolls - to pay for expanding the interstate.
“It is our belief that forcing Lake Norman area motorists to pay a toll to use the new lanes would impose additional financial burdens on our area residents,” the Cornelius Transportation Advisory Board said in a resolution passed 6-0.
The lanes would be the first privately operated toll lanes in North Carolina, but Widen I-77 cites a state document that concludes toll lanes would do little to reduce congestion on I-77's general-purpose lanes.
Toll lanes also would be more expensive than general-purpose lanes, in part because of the $2 million a year needed to operate them, Charlotte business owner Kurt Naas has said. Naas leads Widen I-77 and is a member of the Cornelius Transportation Advisory Board. The private contractor also would expect a profit from managing the lanes, he said.
Leaders of the non-profit Lake Norman Regional Economic Development Corp. came out in favor of the toll lanes recently, saying they’re the most realistic approach to widening I-77.
“When you talk to corporations, they ask questions about a region’s plans for growth,” said Jerry Broadway, executive director of the Lake Norman EDC. “They also ask about access to airports and how to ensure goods and services get to market. Will it cost the area to not have managed (toll) lanes? I believe it would.”