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Charlotte-area leaders discuss I-77 toll lanes to South Carolina

CHARLOTTE — The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization discussed an unsolicited proposal Wednesday night submitted to the North Carolina Department of Transportation to add toll lanes to Interstate 77 between uptown and the South Carolina line.

“The proposal is not, again not, a formal offer,” said Lisa Qualls, a commissioner who represents the town of Mooresville and is also vice-chair of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization. “It is not a bid, and if NCDOT deems the proposal to be viable, then any future managed lane project would have to be the subject of a competitive bidding process.”

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CRTPO board member Pat Cotham was one of the most outspoken opponents during the toll lanes project that go north along I-77.

“I am 100% opposed to this, and I’m kind of offended that we’re even talking about it,” Cotham said. “I think it’s a very sad precedent that we could possibly be involved in. The previous contract I think is the worst one in the history of North Carolina that this state has ever signed with a third party.”

Officials were not happy that state law requires that whoever submitted the proposal will be kept confidential.

“Where is the transparency?” Cotham said. “Where is the accountability? People need to know what is happening with the dollars.”

However, Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, who represents the city of Charlotte, thinks the CRTPO board should at least evaluate the unsolicited proposal because, as she said, something needs to be done about future growth along the I-77 corridor.

“Every day, it’s a parking lot, and so I don’t know what that looks in 30 to 40 years to take careful steps to talk about it,” Eiselt said. “I don’t think it is a bad thing because it is a problem.”

The meeting was just the beginning of a very long process ahead.

The CRTPO’s Technical Coordinating Committee will now examine factors, such as traffic volumes, project costs, possible sources of funding and the number of potential lanes.

It will bring back its findings in September.

The NCDOT isn’t favoring the proposal either way and can only move forward if CRTPO signs on.

Charlotte already has express lanes on I-77 from the Brookshire Freeway to Mooresville. The managed lanes change in price depending on how much traffic is in the general purpose lanes. The revenue goes to I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of the Spanish firm Cintra, not the state. The toll lanes have been controversial ever since they were proposed.

A spokesperson for I-77 Express did not confirm or deny whether they submitted the proposal and referred all questions about it to NCDOT.

“It is clear that continued growth in the Charlotte region will require innovative transportation solutions and infrastructure investment to add capacity and meet demand,” said Rob Boisvert, a spokesperson for I-77 Mobility Partners. “I-77 Mobility Partners strongly supports managed lanes as a proven, sustainable solution. I-77 Express serves as a successful model, providing drivers a reliable travel option, faster average speeds, and shorter travel times in all lanes of the I-77 corridor between Charlotte and Mooresville.”

In his first run for governor, Gov. Roy Cooper opposed the I-77 toll lanes project. After taking office, Cooper directed NCDOT to work with Lake Norman leaders to explore ways out of the 50-year contract with Cintra.

In 2019, Cooper said the Department of Transportation’s goal is to “ultimately have state operation of the I-77 project.”

A spokesperson did not respond to Channel 9′s request for comment on whether Gov. Cooper is in favor of adding a similar toll lane project from uptown Charlotte to South Carolina.

Leaders weigh in on proposal for I-77 toll lanes to SC

Matthews Commissioner Renee Garner said she was not surprised at the unveiling but said Cintra is off to a bad start.

“First priority, aside from building a good road, is building trust in the community because they destroyed that the first time around,” she said.

She didn’t like the shroud of secrecy that came along with the unsolicited proposal to build the project. She wants to make sure future projects slated for Matthews aren’t negatively impacted.

“Cintra doesn’t have a good track record so I am trying to be open minded about it but very leery in the process,” she said.

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said she is keeping an open mind. She said the state is stretched too thin for highway project funding and I-77 is desperate for relief.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to do something and it’s imperative that we have some kind of a plan,” she said. “To wait for the state to fix to I-77 won’t happen in any of our lifetimes, frankly.”

Most tractor-trailers cannot use the current I-77 toll lanes and the contract makes it harder for the state to widen the interstate. A spokesperson for Cintra said it is premature to comment on whether that will apply to the new portion of tolls that is being proposed.

Full statement from I-77 Mobility Partners:

“I would refer you to the NCDOT or Cintra regarding specific questions about the unsolicited proposal.

I-77 Mobility Partners is a limited liability company created as an independent organization with its own structure and operations. Although Cintra is one of the shareholders in the company, I-77 Mobility Partners’ scope is specific to the I-77 Express project corridor between Uptown Charlotte and Mooresville, separate from Cintra’s future development opportunities.

The fact remains that continued growth in the Charlotte region will require innovative transportation solutions and infrastructure investment to add capacity and meet demand. I-77 Mobility Partners is strongly supportive of managed lanes as a proven, sustainable solution. I-77 Express serves as a successful model, providing drivers a reliable travel option, faster average speeds, and shorter travel times in all lanes of the I-77 corridor between Charlotte and Mooresville.”

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