In a series of meetings opened to the public at the last minute, officials from Cintra and the NC Department of Transportation fielded questions from local elected officials about proposed High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on I-77.
Commissioners raised the issue of toll prices, discussed locations of ingress and egress points to the HOT lanes, and asked how construction might affect traffic on the existing lanes. They also discussed plans for a public information session on the HOT lanes in September.
In June, the DOT announced it had signed a preliminary contract with Spain-based Cintra to widen congested I-77 between Charlotte and Mooresville by constructing and operating toll lanes. A final “financial” close on the $655 million partnership is scheduled to be signed this fall, and work on the extra lanes could begin in spring or early summer 2015.
Some citizens and local officials in the Lake Norman area have raised questions about the plan, and those concerns continued to flow at meetings Thursdays, first in Mooresville, then in Davidson, and later in Huntersville.
At Davidson Town Hall, one concern raised was that construction on the new lanes would further slow traffic on existing lanes.
“How do you maintain the traffic flow on the general purpose lanes?” asked Davidson Town Commissioner Rodney Graham. “How do you complete this project without bringing the two existing lanes to a standstill?”
Javier Tamargo, CEO of the Cintra company that is partnering with NCDOT, said that traffic flow should remain steady: “Every once in a while we will have to change the configuration of the lanes around the construction. After the initial surprise, people adjust to the new configuration, and traffic keeps flowing.”
Cintra still has not finalized its plan for how construction will proceed on the extra lanes, but Tamargo said that there will be multiple construction zones at a time along the I-77 corridor. “It’s a long corridor, there’s a lot of work to do, there’s not a lot of time, so don’t expect it to be completed sequentially from one end to the other.
“Whenever it’s possible, we’re going to be working”
Patrick Rhodes, Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Cintra in the US, said that the construction project will likely employ 15-20,000 people, 90 percent of whom will be hired locally.
PAYING TOLLS, GETTING BONUSES
Toll costs are one of the most contentious parts of the I-77 managed lanes discussion. The HOT lanes will have a dynamic tolling system that raises or lowers the toll to make sure that traffic continues at a speed of at least 45 mph in the extra lanes. The more people want to get into the HOT lanes, the higher the tolls.
A traffic and revenue study released by the NCDOT earlier this year estimated that costs could be as high as $20 for a round trip from Mooresville to Charlotte at rush hour. The NCDOT later tried to clarify that study, saying that average tolls would be far lower than those projections. Cintra officials said that they could not release an estimate of the price until after the financial close later this year.
Rodger Rochelle, the NCDOT’s Director of Technical Services said Thursday, “We don’t want to make an estimate today that we have to change tomorrow. Every one of these managed lane projects has its own economy, so it’s hard to make comparisons between this and other projects.”
David Coble, a Mooresville Commissioner at Large, asked whether the toll lanes can benefit the public while still being profitable for Cintra. “Is the goal of this project to maximize through-put, or to maximize Cintra’s profits?” he asked.
Tamargo responded that it is in Cintra’s interest to have as many cars as possible in the toll lane while maintaining speeds of 45 mph, and that this will lessen congestion on the general purpose lanes.
Aside from the issue of bonds, commissioners also raised the question of how bonus funds from the project would be allocated. Along with widening I-77, the NCDOT will spend $156 million to improve the transportation infrastructure along the I-77 corridor. Davidson Commissioner Beth Cashion voiced concerns that most of the money will be spent farther south.
In response to these concerns, Rochelle said that representatives of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission will be on the committee that decides how to allocate the funds. The commission advocates for area transportation improvements and includes representatives appointed by the towns of Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville.
CLOSED MEETINGS OPENED
Little, if any new information came out of Thursday’s meetings, but they did give elected officials a chance to ask lots of questions. Some have said they’ve had difficulty responding to constituents because of a lack of understanding of the project.
The meetings were announced as private, and those who arrived at Davidson Town Hall Thursday found a sign noting that the meetings were closed to the public but.
But DOT officials decided to open the meetings to reporters and citizens, after consulting with Cintra and elected officials.
Shelley Blake, general counsel for the NCDOT, told reporters outside the Davidson Town Board meeting room at 1pm the DOT did not intend for the meetings to be closed. She said the DOT asked local elected officials present if they would be willing to allow observers, and the officials concurred.
RELATED COVERAGE AND LINKS
See past coverage of the I-77 widening project under the “HOT lanes” tag.
NCDOT page on the I-77 Managed Lanes project, including documents, videos and other materials.
Aug. 6, 2014, DavidsonNews.net, “Officials outline plans for new Exit 30 bridge, tolls, HOT lanes access.”