The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO) has voted to authorize the NCDOT to conduct a study which seeks to improve traffic congestion along the I-77 corridor.

This authorization is only one aspect of the CRTPO’s larger conceptualized plan for addressing traffic issues in the Charlotte metro region, titled as the Beyond 77 Study. In an emailed statement to Carolina Journal: Judy Dellert-O’Keef, who serves as participation and consultation planner for the CRTPO explained that the Beyond 77 Study is a conceptual approach which implicates the entire I-77 corridor and is not limited to just the highway.

“The Beyond 77 Corridor Study was conducted understanding that the corridor is greater than just the interstate itself,” Dellert-O’Keef said. “The strategies and solutions identified in the Final Report focus on future mobility needs for the parallel and intersecting transportation network around the interstate (not the interstate itself).”

At their Feb. 15 meeting, the CRTPO’s “Motion to authorize NCDOT to perform initial screening to conduct comparative analysis” was carried, with dialogue from those in favor of the motion and those against.

As previously reported, the study stems from an unsolicited proposal by the construction firm Cintra. The chairman of the CRTPO, Waxhaw Mayor Ron Pappas, emphasized that in reviewing unsolicited proposals, there are two steps to the process, which are put forth in the NCDOT Public Private Partnerships Policy & Procedures manual. These include: 1) Meeting with NCDOT to informally discuss an idea for an Unsolicited Proposal (optional) 2) Submittal of a conceptual unsolicited proposal and Department screening thereof.

According to Cintra’s proposal, toll lanes would be added to I-77 and would extend from uptown Charlotte to the South Carolina state line.

One member who voted to move forward with the analysis insisted that the CRTPO go about the process in a way that is rational, transparent, and understands the broken trust caused by the experience of the I-77 north contract.

In voting affirmatively on the motion, Charlotte City Councilman Ed Driggs stated that the organization’s vote was about taking an initial measure to gather information in order to make an informed decision about how to move forward with the study.

“As one who travels that road (I-77) regularly, I can tell you, you come to a standstill at all different hours of the day,” he said. “Tonight’s decision is about taking a step. It’s about whether or not we want to keep open a conversation about the P3 [public private partnership], whether we want to get the benefit of the information that’s in the unsolicited proposal, or whether we want to just pull the plug. I think it’s premature to think about pulling the plug. I think we need to go further along this route and learn more and get more information before we reach a real conclusion about whether we can proceed with this or not. I regard this particular vote as about whether or not we get more information before we reach a final conclusion.”

Others had contemplated whether CRTPO was marching toward a predetermined conclusion regarding the analysis of the proposal. Concern over the provider of the unsolicited proposal was also discussed, with some members bringing up past issues with Cintra, inquiring whether the Spanish-owned firm could be trusted with the initiative.

Discussions also turned to the addition of toll lanes, a topic which Mineral Springs Mayor Fred Becker said was not subject to the current vote before the CRTPO.

“We are not voting on whether to have toll lanes. That’s an important distinction to make. Managed lanes are the issue,” Becker said.

Other members voiced the difference between toll lanes vs. managed lanes, pointing out that with toll lanes, everyone who enters the roadway will pay; whereas with managed lanes, only some drivers who choose to use the lane may have to pay.

David Roy, a board member of the NC Turnpike Authority, also stressed that Cintra’s unsolicited proposal is not the only one that would be considered.

“If the process were to move forward to P3 procurement, that procurement would be a fair, competitive, and open process regardless of any unsolicited proposals received,” he said.