By DAVID BORAKS
CORNELIUS – The NC Department of Transportation’s plan to widen I-77 north of Charlotte with toll lanes is back in the crosshairs of opponents, who are using information released last week about potentially costly tolls to renew their call to halt planning for the project.
But the DOT says it’s “on track” to sign a contract by the end of this month with Spanish construction firm Cintra Infraestructures. A DOT spokesman on Tuesday responded to the new criticism by saying the information about projected toll rates is outdated.
Meanwhile, the DOT acknowledged last week that Cintra was the only bidder, from among four companies that were interested in the 50-year, $665 million contract. The I-77 widening project has been in the planning stages for several years, and in April the DOT announced it had picked Cintra and had begun negotiating a final contract for the job.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
I-77 is the main artery between Charlotte and fast-growing Lake Norman. Rush hour traffic jams have become a daily frustration for commuters.
The NC DOT’s plan calls for two high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes, in both directions from the Brookshire Freeway/I-277 in Charlotte to Exit 28/Catawba Avenue in Cornelius. One HOT lane in each direction would be built from Exit 28 to Exit 36/NC 150 in Mooresville. Officials say two extra lanes aren’t possible on the northern section because of the narrow causeways over Lake Norman in Cornelius and Davidson.
Tolls would be charged using electronic radio transmitters in commuters’ cars. The tolls would not be mandatory – drivers could opt to stay in general purpose lanes and continue to ride for free. And toll lanes would be free for cars with multiple occupants.
Another name for the toll strategy is “managed lanes,” and it’s becoming increasingly common in urban areas nationwide that are trying to address congestion. Using what’s called “dynamic pricing,” tolls would rise or fall as congestion increased and demand for a reliable ride to or from Charlotte increased. DOT officials and consultants have said in various presentations that the tactic would guarantee predictable and reliable ride at peak hours. They also say HOT lanes will relieve congestion well into the future, while arguing that a new standard non-toll lane would quickly be jammed.
GILROY: TIME TO HIT ‘PAUSE’
Organized opposition to the project surfaced two years ago, in the form of a group named Widen I-77. Led by Cornelius resident Kurt Naas, the group asked the Cornelius Town Board to take a stand against the toll lane project. Cornelius commissioners even adopted one resolution calling on the state to take another look at whether the road could be widened without tolls.
The issue came up again Monday night at the Cornelius Town Board meeting, where Commissioner Dave Gilroy cited the recently released documents to bolster his argument that tolls would increase congestion, not solve it.
Gilroy said he wants the state to “hit the pause button” on the project. Gilroy had sent an email to his supporters on Saturday raising new questions about the toll road plan.
His email followed Naas’s lengthy post last week titled “Answers” on the Widen I-77 website. Naas used the new information, which the NCDOT provided to reporters, to add an exclamation point to his argument against the tolls.
DOT officials said last week that Cintra was the only contractor to bid. Officials said four potential bidders “were shortlisted and participated in more than 70 intensive, one-on-one meetings with NCDOT.”
The four helped develop contract documents that spelled out the project’s design, construction, and maintenance requirements. In the end, only Cintra submitted a proposal.
Meanwhile, the DOT also has released a variety of documents about the toll-lane project, including a technical memo estimating pricing and two memos from the DOT to legislators.
In the absence of other information, Gilroy and Naas are relying on a series of memos to state officials from consulting firm Stantec in 2012 and 2013, which were made public last week, as they criticize the high tolls. On Tuesday, the NC DOT responded, telling CorneliusNews.net that some of the information is outdated and it doesn’t expect tolls to be as high as the memo projects. (See more below.)
Stantec’s 2012 memo, written before bidding began, provided an early estimate of the toll costs as potential bidders were developing their models. The study by Stantec envisioned tolls between Mooresville and Charlotte would be charged in six segments of 3.5 to 5 miles each. Stantec guessed that segments might average between 13 and 85 cents per mile, depending on the time of day, with an overall average of 60 cents (northbound) or 61 cents (southbound) per mile.
Adding those segments together provides a glimpse at the cost of a trip, and that’s where the discussion got heavy Monday night. Gilroy said tolls would cost commuters $9 one way to Charlotte and $12 back home, or $21 total per day. That translates to $480 per month for a five-day, two-way commute, he said. That raised a few eyebrows on the dais.
[Gilroy was using the maximum rush-hour toll rates for the full commuting distance - between Exit 36 in Mooresville and I-277. The exact numbers from the Stantec memo are $9.05 inbound in the morning, $11.75 outbound in the afternoon, or $20.80 total.
Those figures wouldn't represent a cost to and from Cornelius, or any other partial trip. A commute to Charlotte from Exit 28 would cost $6.22 inbound in the morning, 8.64 in the evening, for a total of $14.86.]
Gilroy questioned whether drivers would pay those rates. “The structure that we’re going to have here is going increase congestion in the free lanes,” Gilroy said.
Commissioner John Bradford, who has supported the NC DOT’s plan, was even moved to criticism. “Ten dollar one-way tolls are unaffordable,” Bradford said.
He said he wished the DOT had done a better job of providing public information about the plan. “Why wouldn’t you share everything and anything you have? I really do think we need to push on the DOT to give us some answers,” Bradford said.
Mayor Chuck Travis, who has supported the project in the past as a commissioner and as the former chair of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, agreed that the numbers sounded bad, though he urged caution.
He said the DOT has been limited in what it could say publicly, because of the bidding process. And he noted that the new information is from 2012, which may have changed.
“I don’t know if these tolls are 21 dollars round trip or not,” Travis said. “I don’t know if the congestion numbers round trip are correct or not. They’re all questions we should be asking. But it’s almost as if we’re proving them guilty before we give them a chance to adequately address them,” Travis said.
On Tuesday, the DOT did respond. In an email to CorneliusNews.net, spokesman Steve Abbott said the department thinks rates will be lower than estimated in Stantec’s 2012 memo.
“That study was finalized in 2012, but now that the project is further along we do not anticipate rates being that high. That number (Gilroy’s $21 figure) represented a driver making a 52-mile round-trip on the full stretch of the managed lanes during the the peak travel times of the highest congestion,” Abbott said.
Abbott did not offer any new detailed estimates. But he argued that the maximum toll is not the best projection to use.
“Traffic and revenue studies project a minority of motorists will use the managed lanes for that entire full-length round-trip. A more reasonable reflection of the toll cost would be in the projected average per-user trip, which is in the vicinity of $2 per trip,” Abbott said. “Demand and usage will be factors in pricing, with the toll cost fluctuating depending on the number of vehicles in the lanes.”
He also noted that the tolls will be optional. “Drivers will always have a choice whether to pay for the managed lane or to continue travel for free in general-purpose lanes,” Abbott said.
In various memos, the NCDOT has said that public hearings will be required before the contractor sets the toll rates, so the public will have a chance to comment.
Abbott said last week that the DOT is “still on target to sign the deal by the end of this month.”
INGRESS AND EGRESS
Naas and Gilroy also have raised questions about whether there will be enough ways to enter and exit the toll lanes. They worry that Cintra might limit the number to maximize toll revenue.
“There’s still some uncertainty … we’re not sure where people will be able to get on and off,” Gilroy said Monday.
In his blog post, Naas said it appears drivers from Hunterville and Cornelius, for example, might be forced to stay in the toll lanes all the way to Charlotte. (There’s no separate toll lane entry in Davidson, so those drivers would have to enter the toll lanes at Exit 28, where the DOT is in the midst of another project to overhaul the Catawba Avenue interchange, to smooth traffic flow onto and off I-77.
RELATED COVERAGE AND DOCUMENTS
June 14, 2014, Cornelus Commissioner Dave Gilroy’s email to his supporters about the I-77 project.
June 10, 2014, WidenI77.org, “Answers,” Kurt Naas’s newest blog post on toll pricing and other issues.
April 25, 2014, NCDOT memo to NC House and Senate leaders on the I-77 project. (16 page PDF)
April 25, 2014, NCDOT memo to legislators about the I-77 project. (70 page PDF)
March 8, 2012, newly released technical memo from Stantec to NC DOT
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct that the Stantec memo was actually a series of memos from 2012 and 2013.