LAKE NORMAN, N.C. -- A new Lake Norman citizens group is opposing the state’s plans to build Interstate 77 toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville, and it has gained support from several Cornelius commissioners.
The group, called Widen I-77, wants the state Department of Transportation to explore other funding options for adding lanes to the interstate.
Kurt Naas is a Charlotte business owner from Cornelius who leads the group. He said the state should consider, for instance, using the savings from Interstate 485 and other Charlotte-area road projects that have come in under budget due to the poor economy .
Otherwise, he said, Lake Norman commuters to Charlotte will bear much of the cost of the toll lanes, since they’ll be the biggest users. They’ll also be paying for improvements in the Brookshire Freeway area that have nothing to do with easing traffic in the lake area, he said.
“A toll road would be an additional tax on north Mecklenburg and Iredell County residents who need to use I-77 for their daily commute,” Cornelius commissioner Jeff Hare said in an email interview. “These citizens will likely not use the toll lanes, as the expense on a daily basis would be cost-prohibitive.”
Costs vs. benefits weighed
Since 2011, the state Department of Transportation has planned to convert I-77’s high-occupancy vehicle lanes to toll lanes in the next few years, saying it otherwise doesn’t have the money to expand the interstate.
The lanes would be the first privately operated toll lanes in North Carolina, but the citizens group 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, Naas said, in part because of the $2 million a year needed to operate them. The private contractor also would expect a profit from managing the lanes, he said.
The project calls for adding two toll lanes on both 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 (N.C. 150) in Mooresville. 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.
The project calls for building all toll-lane segments from Charlotte to Mooresville at the same time. Toll rates would vary throughout the day depending on traffic volume. No toll booths would berequired; drivers would pay electronically. Cameras would spot whether toll-lane drivers had enough occupants to avoid a toll. Violators would be mailed a bill.
State Highway Patrol troopers also would look out for violators at unannounced times, transportation officials have said.
The state is scheduled to select a company in August 2013 to build and operate the toll lanes, Huntersville Transportation Planner Bill Coxe told the Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission Wednesday night. Construction is set to begin in summer 2014, with some segments opening in 2016, state transportation officials have said.
But residents still have a say, DOT spokesman Steve Abbott told the Observer, “as no final alternative plan has been selected and we have not finalized any document that sets everything in stone as yet. We expect to have another public meeting on the project in early/spring 2013 to get even more feedback beyond the three public meetings held last year.”
The overall project cost hasn’t been set. Coxe has told the Huntersville Board of Commissioners that it could total $513 million.
A one-time taxpayer subsidy of $25 million to $110 million could be required, Moose has said. He said the toll revenues might not be enough to finance the entire project.
Any subsidy would come from DOT funds and wouldn’t require legislative approval, said Mitch Abraham, a former Mooresville commissioner and former member of the Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission.
‘A snowball’s chance’
The Widen I-77 group has addressed Lake Norman area clubs and organizations in the hopes that enough opposition will force the state to reconsider the project, although Coxe said he gives that prospect “a snowball’s chance in global warming.”
But the group already has the ears of some Cornelius commissioners.
Commissioner Dave Gilroy said he agrees the state should ditch the idea of toll lanes for I-77.
In a resolution he introduced at the Dec. 3 Cornelius Board of Commissioners meeting, Gilroy said he favors general purpose lanes. The state Department of Transportation pays for such lanes.
“There is no question at all that the crux of the problem is Exit 23 (Huntersville) to Exit 28 (Cornelius) and that simply adding one or two general purpose lanes to this segment would dramatically reduce the agony faced by today’s commuters,” Gilroy said in his resolution, which has yet to come to a vote. “Two general purpose lanes is the ideal solution, period. We need local government, both municipal boards and transportation-focused agencies, to drive toward the best answer and pursue funding aggressively and creatively, rather than simply ‘sleep-walking’ toward tolls.”
Cornelius commissioner John Bradford said he also supports general purpose lanes. “I absolutely prefer General Purpose lanes over toll lanes,” Bradford said in an email to the Observer on Thursday. “I just want to ensure all viable options for GP lanes are legitimately explored in lieu of the toll lanes. That said, though, I will support either type of expanded lanes over no lane expansion whatsoever.”
Hare, a fellow commissioner, said he questions claims the state can’t afford to build more general purpose lanes. Lake area population growth over the past two decades “has provided millions in taxes to the federal and state governments, those entities charged with providing roads,” Hare said.
“Gasoline taxes are higher than neighboring states, we have a high personal income tax in North Carolina and pay personal property taxes on vehicles, but we still somehow have a shortfall in funds available to pay for needed infrastructure, like the widening of I-77.”