CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte transportation officials met Wednesday to discuss the possibility of allowing more tolls on Interstate 77, stretching from Uptown to the South Carolina border.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation says it received a request from an unidentified company to build toll lanes to the South Carolina state line. NCDOT said it must be formally approved by Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization before it can analyze the proposal.
Any toll projects in North Carolina must be requested and approved by the local planning organization, NCDOT said citing state law. NCDOT issued a statement saying the proposal is only a concept and not anywhere close to being approved, and went further saying it's not "advocating for any particular path forward" regarding I-77 tolls.
There was strong debate among the committee. Some leaders told WCNC Charlotte one issue is not knowing who the proposer is for the plan. County Commissioner Pat Cotham said that leads to distrust.
"How can I vote on something if I don't know what the clear plan is or who the private partner is?" Cotham asked.
"NCDOT received a conceptual, unsolicited proposal in February for a public-private partnership (P3) delivery of express lanes on I-77 South between uptown Charlotte and South Carolina," NCDOT's statement reads. "This was an unsolicited proposal, not asked for by NCDOT, and is only a concept, not a formal offer or bid. The department informed the CRTPO about the proposal at its March 23 meeting. Based on feedback from the CRTPO, NCDOT informed the proposer that the department is not evaluating the proposal until the CRTPO provides clear direction."
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.
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."
“I don’t think you should have to pay tolls to use roads, you already pay for with taxes," Charlotte resident Taylor Paige said.
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.
In regards to the proposed project, I-77 Mobility Partners provided a statement saying, "It is clear that continued growth in the Charlotte region will require innovative transportation solutions and infrastructure investment to add capacity and meet demand. I-77 Mobility Partners strongly supports managed lanes as a proven, sustainable solution. I-77 Express serves as a successful model, providing drivers a reliable travel option, faster average speeds, and shorter travel times in all lanes of the I-77 corridor between Charlotte and Mooresville.”
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.
The 26-mile stretch of toll lanes opened through north Charlotte caused controversy and public outrage before they were built. In response, I-77 Mobility Partners argued the new lanes offered a solution to those looking to avoid congestion.
Currently, one-way trips from Charlotte to Mooresville average more than $8 when traffic is light and up to $16 during peak traffic times. I-77 Mobility Partners declined an interview ahead of Wednesday's meeting, deferring all questions to NCDOT.
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