RALEIGH – Today the head of Charlotte’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) said she believes the I-77 toll lane project they requested from the state in 2007 is still “desperately needed.” MPO Chairwoman Sarah McAulay says the project was requested after extensive study on cost-effective ways to ease congestion on the roadway. She calls supporters of the project the “silent majority.”
“It’s such an ugly situation down here for local officials who support it because of the vocal people who are in favor of more general-purpose lanes instead. Those just wouldn’t hold the capacity,” said McAulay. “I drive over it in the middle of the day and it’s stopped both ways. I would work to get the votes to make sure it isn’t cancelled.”
Her comments come as business leaders from the Lake Norman area joined Sen. Jeff Tarte (R-Charlotte) in Raleigh today to oppose the project. Tarte announced that he was introducing Senate Bill 639 in the Senate Transportation Committee meeting on Wednesday, as a substitute bill for the Senate Transportation Funding Bill. The language added prohibits new road construction that would be financed with tolls or other direct user fees. Tarte says a new project will be designed by this fall with additional general-purpose lanes instead of toll lanes.
“It will be submitted for ranking in October and compete with other projects. It’s possible that it could never rank high enough, but that’s unlikely,” said Tarte.
Every two years the NCDOT accepts new project proposals for priority ranking. They say any new I-77 project with a different scope would require new study data. October’s projects would be slated for 2017 at the earliest.
The NCDOT ranks projects by priority based on a system called the Strategic Mobility Formula that takes into account data on economic impact, cost, safety, traffic congestion and other factors. The rating formula is part of the Strategic Transportation Initiative Law passed in 2013 as an effort to prioritize projects based on need, rather than the district legislators political clout. Tarte was among those lawmakers who voted for it.
Over the past few months, Tarte spoke to groups in municipalities around the region, saying he would work to stop the I-77 toll lanes project if the local governments passed resolutions against it.
“It’s disappointing to see Senator Tarte continue to misrepresent information and flip-flop on the issue. He’s one of the Senators who passed the STI law to take the politics out of transportation funding,” said Mike Charbonneau, communication director at the Department of Transportation. “If he’s asking the MPO to cancel the contract and do nothing, that’s one thing. But if he’s asking to cancel and do general-purpose lanes instead, that’s not in the scope of the law and he’s either intentionally or unintentionally misleading his constituents.”
Under the current contract, the I-77 express and toll lanes could be operating within four years. The state will own the road, but private contractor Cintra will collect tolls and provide all maintenance for fifty years. The group of opposing business leaders went door to door in the legislative building today lobbying lawmakers. Part of the group Widen I-77, they say they are concerned that it prevents the state from adding additional lanes for fifty years and they say the plans do not include exits in the toll lanes to all of the small towns along the stretch.
“It ignores thirty years of land-use planning and redirects traffic, creating a negative impact on area businesses,” said Jim Puckett, a Mecklenburg County Commissioner. “We estimate about $10-20 billion in productivity loss of our area over the course of the 50-year contract.”
However, the NCDOT says they support the local MPO’s desire for the project and are delivering on what the local authority requested. They say is it a cost-effective way to solve the area’s congestion into the future and point out that canceling the project now would cost the state a $100 million penalty.
Supporters of Tarte’s measure say they have not zeroed in on a specific plan for paying for a redesigned project that does not include toll lanes. They say they are considering several options, including requesting that it be added to Governor McCrory’s new infrastructure bond, NC Connect. However the projects on that bond list have already been fully vetted, approved, and are ready to begin.