As Work Proceeds, I-77 Toll Decision Could Take Months

Aug 17, 2017

NCDOT says it's months away from a deciding whether to act on consultant’s report on whether to cancel, revise or keep a contract to build toll lanes on I-77 north of Charlotte. That’s leaving some wondering if the DOT will act before the toll lanes are finished next year.

That concern followed Wednesday's meeting of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which sets road and transit policy for the region. In the past it has endorsed the toll-lane project. But that's mainly because of support from Charlotte, which has a voting majority. Representatives from the Lake Norman area have opposed it.    

Consultant James Taylor of Mercator Advisors spoke to the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization Wednesday about canceling or revising the I-77 toll lanes contract.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE

So how did members react to a draft report out last week from Mercator Advisors? After a half-hour presentation by the consultant, the board was mostly silent. NC Turnpike Authority's Beau Memory told them this process is far from over.

"Our hope is to have this wrapped up and to the public and to the secretary by the 22nd of September. What I do know is they do plan some further public engagement following that on the report and on their next steps," Memory said.

Just how long those next steps will take is unclear, but months at a minimum. And that worries Kurt Naas, leader of the anti-toll group Widen I-77.

"Based on what we just heard, I think the project is gonna be completed before the policy is. This sounds like a first step basically towards where we eventually need to be, which is getting the road widened without toll lanes," Naas said after the meeting.

Just four citizens commented during the meeting. All called on NCDOT to cancel the 50-year, $650 million contract with Spanish construction company Cintra. It calls for adding toll lanes on 26-miles of the congested highway from I-277 to Exit 36 in Mooresville.  Work is already underway and the lanes are expected to be completed by the end of 2018. 

Consultant James Taylor of Mercator says canceling the contract could cost about $300 million.

"That would be the minimum. The process is they need to have an independent appraiser, so that's a variable there," Taylor told reporters after the meeting.

The total doesn't include the cost of shutting down the construction project, or completing it in some other form - such as with conventional lanes.

The report also outlines other options, such buying the project from the contractor once it's complete or revising the contract. Possible revisions include allowing trucks in toll lanes; allowing two-passenger carpools, instead of three; and offering frequent user discounts.

Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon ordered the $100,000 consultant's review this spring.  

The DOT is seeking public comment on the report, at NCDOT.gov.

The anti-toll group Widen I-77 is having its own public meeting on the report next Thursday in Mooresville.