CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Taxpayers could end up paying a one-time subsidy of $25 million to $110 million to build Interstate 77 toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville, a state Department of Transportation official said.

This project is not 100 percent supported by the (toll) revenues, so there will be a subsidy, DOT engineer Barry Moose told the Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission at its meeting last week at Mooresville Town Hall.

The meeting marked the first time a subsidy had been stated publicly before the commission, which previously endorsed the toll-lane concept.

Asked later to explain his prediction that a taxpayer subsidy will be needed, Moose backed away from the assertion, saying it s unclear how much of a subsidy will be needed, if any.

The transportation commission s I-77 task force endorsed the concept of high-occupancy toll lanes or HOT lanes in 2010.

The panel said toll lanes would reduce congestion and bring about the proposed widening of I-77 sooner by putting toll revenues toward building more lanes.

The commission includes representatives from northern Mecklenburg County and Mooresville in Iredell County, including town commissioners, town managers and planners.

Moose, the division engineer in the N.C. DOT s Albemarle office, added the HOT lane project to the state Transportation Improvement Plan in 2011, after the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization backed converting I-77 s HOV lanes into toll lanes.

The state expects to award a contract in the fall for a private contractor to finance, design, build and operate the lanes, Moose said.

The HOV lanes would be converted to toll lanes as part of the project, the aim of which is to reduce congestion. Cars with at least three occupants would avoid paying a toll to use the lanes, Moose said.

State: Subsidy level depends on cost

On Monday, Moose qualified his remarks about a subsidy, telling the Observer that any subsidy would depend on the economy. If it continues to stay soft, there might not be a need for a subsidy at all, he said, meaning a poor economy could help keep construction costs in check.

All of it could change tomorrow, he said of a taxpayer subsidy.

Any subsidy would come from DOT funds and wouldn t require legislative approval, said former Mooresville commissioner Mitch Abraham, who also was on the Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission and now advises it as a consultant.

The I-77 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, Moose said.

One toll lane in each direction would continue between Exit 28 and either Exit 33 or Exit 36 in Mooresville, he said.

The causeways (over Lake Norman) are not wide enough to accommodate two HOT lanes in each direction north of Exit 28, he said.

The project calls for building all toll lane segments from Charlotte to Mooresville at the same time, Moose told the commission.

Toll rates would vary throughout the day depending on traffic volume, he said.

No toll booths will be required, as drivers will pay electronically, Moose said. 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, he said.

Environmental studies to begin soon

Moose said environmental studies will begin soon, with approval expected for one of two sections in early 2013 and the other by summer 2013.

Design work could begin in spring 2013, with construction starting nine months after that, he said. Construction would take a couple of years.

The overall project cost hasn t been set, he said.

We feel it s a very aggressive scenario but one our folks in Raleigh feel are achievable, Moose told the commission.
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