The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO) will be voting Feb. 15 on a proposed study which will utilize managed lanes on Interstate 77. The study conceptualizes several methods to improve highway transportation on I-77 running from Charlotte into South Carolina, one of which includes additional tolls.

CRTPO’s upcoming vote is based on the goals originating from “The Beyond 77 Study” and is billed as a “plan that will accommodate regional transportation needs of today.” The study has several stated outcomes it hopes to achieve, which ultimately seek to improve the means of transportation and commute in the Charlotte region.

“The study’s outcomes will strengthen the multi-modal network surrounding the interstate by providing a toolbox of effective strategies, policies, and programs that will guide future mobility for our diverse communities,” according to the text of the study.

Tony Lathrop, who serves as finance chair for the N.C. Board of Transportation, summarized the plan via CRTPO’s YouTube channel, saying the goal of the study is to enable leaders to make better decisions about how to address the transportation issues affecting the Charlotte area.

“We want to be able to use technology and planning and the data we get from this study to make better decisions and better-informed decisions about the transportation infrastructure in that corridor so that we can get more bang for our buck so that people can choose to live and work closer together, can bike to their work or can bike to a park and ride for a bus, or walk to a park and ride for a bus, so the modes become more complimentary and more efficient and more sustainable,” he said.

Debate over toll lanes fires back up

The issue over toll lanes on I-77 has been on-going for years due to the explosive growth and traffic in the Charlotte metro region of the state. Much of the debate over toll lanes has affected highway expansion and has carried political implications with it. The most notable political ramifications came from adding toll lanes to the north Mecklenburg area of the interstate, which some believe had an impact on the N.C. governor’s race in 2016. Candidates on both sides of the political aisle have expressed views on how best to handle the issue of tolls and highway expansion in Charlotte.

As noted in previous reporting, transportation-related upgrade proposals on I-77 began in 2009 when the ideas for toll road implementation gained traction via a feasibility study. Motivations behind the study were to accommodate the increasing flow of traffic on the highways, in particular drivers affected by the commute in northern Mecklenburg County. The planned construction cost of such a proposal was $647 million.

CJ file photo

Years later, in March 2014, the 2040 Charlotte metropolitan transportation plan, as cited in the Beyond 77 Study, also recommended the evaluation of I-77 corridor to determine how best to use funding to relieve current and projected congestion, increase transportation options, improve connectivity and equity, and decrease the gap between land use and transportation needs.

Construction on the initial I-77 express lanes began in 2015 and the lanes were opened in 2019. The main stakeholder with the project is I-77 Mobility Partners LLC, who, according to their website, is responsible for the financing, developing, designing, constructing, operating and maintaining the 26-mile I-77 Express project as part of a public-private partnership with the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

A “holistic improvement”

Cintra’s latest proposal, released on Feb. 11, 2022, aims for a “holistic improvement” of the targeted I-77 corridor and, according to the firm’s report, is aligned with other highway construction plans throughout the state.

Detractors of the newly proposed plan make a number of arguments against it, namely that Cintra is not a U.S. based company, toll lanes are financially burdensome and unnecessary, and the potential for an increase in accidents and delays in traffic caused by on-going construction of the roads. The projected price tag on the I-77 South managed lanes, according to NCDOT, is $2.1 billion. I-77 Mobility Partners has also come under fire for taking legal action against drivers who were involved in accidents on the toll lanes.

In a statement provided to Carolina Journal, Jennifer Thompson, who serves as a communications officer for NCDOT, remarked that the CRTPO’s study will be delivered in one of two ways, possibly through a public-private partnership (P3) or a traditional toll project delivery process (like the I-485 express lanes project.)

“The concept of toll lanes on the I-77 south corridor has been discussed at the local level for years. Per state law, toll projects in North Carolina must be requested and approved by the local planning organization,” she said. “CRTPO first submitted a tolled, managed lanes concept for the I-77 south corridor during the first round of prioritization for STI law, P3.0, (which created the 2016-2025 STIP). It was included in the most recent round of prioritization as I-5718 A&B.”

Reviews ahead

Thompson further stated that proposals received by the department at this point are by no means final.

“NCDOT received a conceptual unsolicited proposal in February 2022 for a public-private partnership delivery of the I-77 south express lanes project,” she said. “This unsolicited proposal is only a concept, not a formal offer or bid. The department informed CRTPO of the conceptual unsolicited proposal during the board’s March 23 meeting. Based on feedback from the CRTPO board during that meeting, NCDOT informed the proposer that the department is not evaluating the proposal until clear direction is received from CRTPO.”

“NCDOT is not advocating for a particular path forward,” she continued. “If CRTPO would like to continue to explore the P3 concept for the delivery of the I-77 south toll lanes project and the process progresses, a contractor would be selected through an open, competitive and transparent bid process. There would also be opportunities for public feedback. The process could stop at any time up until a contract would be awarded.”

The CRTPO will vote on allowing NCDOT to move forward with the study on Feb. 15 at the government center in Charlotte.