Consultants and other visitors at Wednesday's drop-in workshop at Cornelius Town Hall looked at maps of the proposed I-77 widening project. (David Boraks/CorneliusNews.net) Residents, businesspeople and local officials this week got a closeup look at several versions of a proposal to build high-occupancy toll lanes on I-77 to help relieve rush-hour congestion north of Charlotte. At workshops in Cornelius Wednesday and Charlotte Thursday, NC Department of Transportation officials and consultants showed maps of the planned route and drawings of what toll lanes might look like. FOUR SCENARIOS The four scenarios under consideration are: Scenario 1: Convert the existing HOV lanes to high occupancy toll (HOT) operations and extend them north to Exit 28. This could be completed by the end of 2015, with toll exemptions for those with two or more occupants. Scenario 2: Convert the existing HOV lanes to high occupancy toll (HOT) operations and extend them north to exit 28. This also could be completed by the end of 2015, with toll exemptions for those with three or more occupants. Scenario 3: Convert the existing HOV lanes to high occupancy toll (HOT) operations and expand them to provide 2 HOT lanes in each direction between I-85 and exit 28. Finished by end of 2015, with toll exemptions for those with two or more occupants. Scenario 4: Convert the existing HOV lanes to high occupancy toll (HOT) operations and expand them to provide 2 HOT lanes in each direction between I-85 and exit 28. To be finished by end of 2015, with toll exemptions for those with three or more occupants. Regional planners say the I-77 corridor between I-277 in Charlotte and Exit 28 (Catawba Avenue) in Cornelius is often over capacity at peak travel times. That congestion will worsen without improvements, they say, but funding for the work is limited. So officials are considering "alternative funding options" such as partial toll lanes to help pay for the project. HOW IT WORKS Planners are proposing to convert the existing HOV lanes into toll lanes. These new High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes would use an automated system to charge varying fees, depending on the level of traffic at any given time. Tolls would be lowest in the middle of the night, and rise as traffic grows, reaching a peak at rush hour. Cars with a minimum number of passengers - either two or three - would be exempt from tolls under four schemes shown at the workshops. Driver-only cars could use the lanes and pay a toll using a wireless electronic system that would automatically debit an account. Eric Midkiff of the NC DOT said no toll collection system has been picked, but many versions are already in use around the country. Some states have even begun eliminating toll booths with human collectors in favor of all-electronic systems, he said. Why not just build more lanes? "Fast growing areas like the Charlotte region will not be able to rid themselves of crippling congestion by merely building additional capacity. At some point, our ability to expand I-77 and other similar roadways will fail due to limitations on available right-of-way. HOT lanes allow communities to manage a portion of a given [road] to ensure reliable trip times and access to economic hubs, while still preserving 'free' alternatives." SOURCE: NC DOT The electronic systems would use a combination of wireless readers, cameras and police enforcement to collect tolls. Cameras would photograph cars (and license plates) in the toll lanes and drivers without the electronic passes would be billed by mail. The system in part would rely on the honor system. And there's another potential hitch: In North Carolina, the highway patrol does not have the authority to stop drivers for not paying tolls. (This would be one of the first toll roads in the state; the only operating toll road in the state so far is the Triangle Expressway in Raleigh.) Reid Simons of the DOT said state officials would have to seek legislation to get enforcement help from the highway patrol. ON THE FAST TRACK? Besides relieving congestion, the toll plan also would help pay for construction of additional lanes between north Charlotte and Exit 28 (Catawba Avenue) in Cornelius. That project is currently expected to be funded in 2015, but with toll lanes could be speeded up, with work beginning next year. The I-77 widening project is actually advancing quickly - far more quickly than the Red Line Regional Rail Project, another proposal aimed at improving commuting north of Charlotte. "I-77 has been the number one priority of the citizens of this region for years," said Bill Thunberg, executive director of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, a regional group that has been lobbying for transportation issues for the past few years. Thunberg said the I-77 project appears to be getting closer to reality, but it's evolving. State and local officials and consultants are studying whether the road project could be done in cooperation with a private partner - a company that would build the road and set up and operate the toll system. The operator would be allowed to keep a portion of the toll revenue as a return on investment, according to the DOT. It would be the first public-private partnership toll-road project in North Carolina. And Mr. Thunberg said officials now are working with potential partners to determine if the project can be extended north of Exit 28, to Exit 36 in Mooresville. This week's workshops were organized by the N.C. DOT and Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO), along with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). RELATED DOCUMENTS MUMPO web page devoted to the improvements on I-77 from I-277 to Exit 28. Read about the 4 proposed scenarios HOT Lanes FAQs North Carolina Department of Transportation HOT Lanes Summary Presentation NC Quickpass electronic toll system web page. The system is currently used only on the Triangle Expressway in Raleigh.