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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Sometimes the simplest questions to the most powerful people never get an answer.

How much will the high occupancy toll lanes cost on I-77 between downtown Charlotte, Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville?

If you've ever been on a turnpike or driven I-85 past the "Peach Pass" lanes into Atlanta, you know the drill. How much you pay depends on how far you travel.

So since NCDOT is one signature away from inking a $650 million deal with a $15 billion international company, Cintra, to commit Mecklenburg and Iredell County drivers on Interstate 77 to half a century of tolls, you might expect a hard number.

Nope.

North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Anthony Tata got the toll cost question four different ways from three different reporters, including twice from NBC Charlotte, and never uttered a single hard number.

Among the four responses:

"It's going to be market driven."

"What they (Cintra) will do is have the rates commensurate with what people will pay for."

"Well the public will have the say (in hearings) and the market will have the say in the toll rates."

And finally: "It would be irresponsible for me to provide some random number without public input which is really the most important part of this process."

An earlier study unearthed in an open records request by toll lane opponents at Widen I-77 put the estimate at about $20 a day from Mooresville to Charlotte and back. That's about $5,000 a work year for commuters.

The NCDOT has balked at the figure saying it's high. But the DOT chief has not named a lower figure.

The answer appears to be that the driving public -- the taxpayers who are ponying up $88 million to begin construction on lanes, flyover bridges and replacing bridges to allow for extra toll lanes -- will find out how much the lanes cost only AFTER the contract with Cintra is a done deal.

The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and other business and elected leaders in the Lake Norman area support the toll lanes saying they will provide reliable travel times and less congestion.

The Chamber hosted NCDOT and Cintra leadership for a regional transportation summit luncheon and briefing Tuesday.

WidenI77.org is holding a meeting opposing the toll lanes Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Cornelius Town Hall.

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