MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- The debate about HOT lanes is getting hotter as opponents of toll lanes on I-77 north of Charlotte won an important advocate to their side.

Rep. Robert Brawley, a Republican House member from Iredell County, announced Sunday he is switching his position to oppose toll lanes to widen I-77 from uptown Charlotte to Highway 150 in Mooresville.

My general opposition to toll roads is I feel we, the consuming public, are paying twice with tolls, said Rep. Brawley.

Commuters from Iredell County and the Lake Norman area have pushed to widen I-77 to ease congestion during morning and afternoon commutes. Parts of the highway are just two lanes in each direction, and the right-of-way can accommodate three lanes.

NC DOT s long-range widening plan calls for High-Occupancy Toll lanes, or HOT lanes to ease the congestion and provide a sure 45-mile-an-hour commute to those willing to pay.

The lanes would change price depending on the congestion, and buses and carpoolers with three or more people in their car would ride for free. The current HOV lanes north of uptown Charlotte would convert to HOT lanes.

The advocacy group Widen I-77 wants to widen I-77, as the name suggests, but members want three general-purpose lanes instead of two lanes and a toll lane.

The message is loud and clear, the people do not want HOT lanes, said Widen I-77 member Sharon Hudson. She pointed to a wall of petitions which she said represented a sample of more than 2,000 signatures against toll lanes collected in the last four weeks.

Hudson and others said DOT should build the third lane to ease congestion between Charlotte and Lake Norman, without charging drivers extra.

Rep. Brawley also said he changed his mind when he read a study that showed a 14-mile stretch of the road could be widened from two lanes to three in northern Mecklenburg and southern Iredell counties for less than $100 million.

I am convinced there is an option that costs less than $100 million, that will give us a 50% increase in capacity on I-77, he said.

Brawley said the current DOT plan calls for building or converting one or two lanes of HOT lanes on the entire 27-mile stretch for $550 million, with a contribution of more than $100 million from taxpayers.

In the DOT plan, a private company would pay to build and maintain the toll lanes for the next 50 years, and collect the tolls to pay back the investment.

Davidson mayor John Woods, a supporter of the toll lanes, disputed the advocacy group s numbers. He believes widening I-77 will only ease congestion for a few years, and then the region will run out of options for widening again.

So-called managed lanes, said Woods, would allows for a faster commute whenever drivers need it.

It may relieve congestion in some lanes, it may not, said Woods, but the point is, it does move some traffic -- so the driver can make a choice.

Allowing a private company to pay for construction up front will also mean the lanes can be built sooner, said Woods. He said money is not available right now to widen I-77 without private help.

The Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MUMPO, will address the topic of toll lanes at their meeting May 22 and the Government Center in uptown Charlotte.

More immediately, Widen I-77 will present their plan for a cheaper alternative to widening I-77 at Cornelius town hall Monday night, May 6.

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