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Cintra behind unsolicited proposal to add more tolls on I-77

Cintra, the company behind the I-77 tolls from I-277 to Mooresville, made an unsolicited proposal for more tolls from Uptown to I-485 in south Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cintra was revealed as the unknown company behind an unsolicited proposal to add new tolls from Uptown Charlotte to the South Carolina border on Interstate 77, the North Carolina Department of Transportation said. 

Cintra is the same company that was behind the existing tolls on I-77 from Interstate 277 to Mooresville. Cintra sent the proposal to NCDOT and the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CTRPO), wanting to have discussions about adding more tolls to the interstate. 

Documents obtained by WCNC Charlotte show that Cintra wants to build two express lanes in each direction from I-485 to I-277. In addition to the toll lanes, Cintra proposed adding an additional general purpose lane in each direction from West Morehead Street to I-277, widening I-77 to 12 total lanes (4 general purpose, 2 tolls in each direction).

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The proposal was originally sent to NCDOT on Feb. 11, according to Cintra. In a letter to NCDOT giving the state permission to share the proposal's details dated July 29, Cintra said the project would relieve NCDOT's budget and taxpayers. The company is calling for a 50-year contract to collect tolls on the 9.4-mile stretch. Cintra's letter says construction on the project would take five years with an estimated completion of 2029, should it be approved and started in the middle of 2024. 

"NCDOT will be able to deliver a $2.3 billion project at no cost to the State while ensuring enhanced user experience, and while also receiving an additional Concession Payment of over $200 million," the letter reads. "NCDOT will save over $58 million per year on O&M expenditure and rehabilitation of the segment over the 50-year concession period."

NCDOT said any toll projects in North Carolina must be requested and approved by the local planning organization, per state law. In this case, that would be CTRPO. Discussion of the proposal caused a strong reaction from some committee members, with County Commissioner Pat Cotham saying she's prepared to fight back against Cintra again. 

“The people are still not happy," Cotham said. "There was a lot of lost trust in North Mecklenburg."

Commissioner Cotham recalls the previous issues with Cintra's work on the existing I-77 toll lanes with delays and miscommunication as well reports of the company filing bankruptcy for a highway project in Texas in 2016.

“They didn’t keep up with the safety of the painting of the lines so you’d be driving, there’s no lights, you don’t know where the lane is," Cotham said.

RELATED: Delay possible for I-77 toll lane project

According to NCDOT, the latest data from 2019 shows the average annual daily traffic on I-77 near the state line was 161,000 drivers and 138,000 closer to the John Belk Freeway. 

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In the eyes of some drivers, the proposal is roadkill. 

“That sucks literally, I don’t see a reason for it," Charlotte resident Darryl Brooks said. “I think that’s just going to add another lane and add more congestion."

The existing I-77 tolls start just north of Brookshire Boulevard and extend to Mooresville in Iredell County.  

According to I-77 Mobility Partners, which operates the express lanes, on average 300,000 drivers use them, every month.  As the economy continues to recover from the pandemic and more workers return to the office, that number is expected to grow. They also say close to 3 million distinct vehicles have used the express lanes since they opened in November 2019.

Meanwhile, the I-485 express lane project remains under construction. It was expected to be completed in 2022, but the pandemic has delayed the project until the winter of 2024. It will add one express lane in each direction along I-485 between I-77 and U.S. 74 (Independence Boulevard). The project has also created an additional general-purpose lane from Rea Road to Providence Road.

If CRTPO and NCDOT decide to go through with the toll lane proposal Ctoham hopes other companies from North Carolina or other parts of the United States put in bids too aside from just considering Cintra.

Flashpoint is a weekly in-depth look at politics in Charlotte, North Carolina, South Carolina, and beyond with host Ben Thompson. Listen to the podcast weekly.
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