by: Kathryn Burcham Updated:
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - State transportation officials are defending a controversial plan to add a High Occupancy Toll lane on Interstate 77.
On Wednesday, North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Tony Tata made a presentation to a local transportation committee where he announced the construction of the HOT lane is expected to use 50-100 local firms and would create 15,000-20,000 direct and indirect jobs over the next few years.
"The main reason people should support this is that it will provide congestion relief in four years to an area that is hugely congested," Tata said.
Tata also addressed the media directly for the first time since announcing the public-private partnership with infrastructure development company Cintra, which will foot more than half billion dollars of the project. Taxpayers will pay for $88 million of the 26-mile project, Tata said.
LINK: I-77 toll lanes design build project details
"There's not enough money to address all of the problems across the state so we needed a more efficient way to use the money we do have," Tata said.
Critics, including grassroots citizens group Widen I-77, have called the plan "an expensive non-solution" and many drivers have expressed concern over the cost of the proposed tolls.
Wednesday, Tata said the toll cost would be determined after public hearings that Cintra will sponsor, and would also be "market-driven."
"The rates [will be] commensurate to what the people will pay for," Tata said.
Channel 9 pressed Tata to provide an estimate or even a range of what commuters might expect to pay, but Tata refused.
"It would be irresponsible of me to provide a random number when it's based on public input, and that's really the most important part of this process," Tata said.
On Thursday, Widen I-77 plans to hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. in Cornelius and could address these latest developments.