Costly new compromise for I-77 toll lanes, but is there enough money for all local projects?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The NCDOT secretary presented recommended changes for the Interstate 77 toll lane project after millions of dollars have been spent and months of construction.

On Thursday, former state Rep. Charles Jeter weighed in on the latest development.

Jeter agreed that dozens of other major infrastructure programs will be first in line for new state transportation dollars, but not the I-77 toll lane project currently under construction.

"You have a tremendous amount of projects that are way ahead of this that are costly," Jeter said.

Jeter helped pass the law that created the State Transportation Improvement Plan while in office.

"What that says is, we're taking politics out of road building we're doing it based on a score," Jeter said.

Jeter said the list of projects that scores higher than fixing include the southern portion of the I-485 express lane project and the I-77 corridor south of Charlotte.

"Yesterday illuminated the fact that unless Santa Claus comes down some Lake Norman chimney with $500 million, those toll roads are gonna be there," Jeter said.

Secretary Jim Trogdon said Wednesday he is backing a recommendation to convert one of the two proposed toll lanes for Interstate 77 near North Carolina's largest city into a free, general purpose lane.

Trogdon said the department is also recommending the contract be renegotiated with better terms for drivers, discounts for frequent users and permission for medium-size trucks to use express lanes.

Trogdon spoke Wednesday afternoon at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. Trogdon spoke about options for changing the two toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville, which are under construction and could open as early as this year.

“We want to make progress every day for this community,” Trogdon said.

Trogdon said, over the next six months, NCDOT hopes to improve the project by negotiating a maximum toll price, frequent user discounts and the ability for medium-sized trucks to use the lanes.

Over the next couple of years, the state hopes to pursue multiple ways to expand. Those recommendations include allowing shoulders to be used during peak hours, converting a toll lane to a free lane and additional lanes from Huntersville to Mooresville.

None of those expansion options are guaranteed, though. All of them will have to score high enough for funding and compete against other area projects for those dollars.

The earliest the options can be submitted for ranking is next year. Assuming all goes to plan, the additional lanes wouldn’t be implemented until 2025.

Leaders on both sides of the aisle aren’t thrilled about the lengthy timeline.

“It can't be solved in decades ahead. We have to work harder to get something done now," Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham said.

“I believe if you leave it how it is, based on the facts that have been presented, this thing will go bankrupt before they change it," North Carolina Sen. Jeff Tarte said.

The plan also hinges on Cintra, the company building the lanes, accepting the changes.

Trogdon also said the state wants to buy the contract from Cintra, but that won’t happen anytime soon.

Trogdon has been reviewing the recommendations made by the I-77 advisory committee three months ago.

The committee, made up of representatives from local towns and groups, recommended the state take the project back from a Spanish firm and make one of the two planned toll lanes free.

Past toll lane coverage:

Trogdon gave an update to the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization Wednesday.

“My children and grandchildren may enjoy a better drive than I will,” Iredell County Commissioner Jeff McNeely said. “I hope not, but I'm afraid so.”

McNeely said the plan is a good start.

“I don't think it's finished,” McNeely said. “I think there are things we can do and will do, that will improve it that much more.

Some leaders expressed concerns about the lengthy timeline at the CRTPO meeting.

“For people who live in north Mecklenburg and south Iredell County, it does nothing for them,” Mecklenburg County Commission Vice Chair Jim Puckett said.

Local representatives want the state to expedite efforts to correct the toll project, that many consider a massive mistake.

“We need to get the legislature to say this project is different,” Puckett said. “We need to deal with it as an economic development project. Fund it differently than we do our current road building, and pull it out of that process so that we are able to speed up our options.”

Public criticism of the project impacted the 2016 gubernatorial race in which Republican incumbent Pat McCrory narrowly lost to Democrat Roy Cooper, who criticized the toll lane contract.

Governor Roy Cooper statement:

“This was a bad deal for families in the Charlotte-area and while the ultimate goal is to ease traffic and have North Carolina operate the project, I appreciate the Department of Transportation’s work with local leaders to identify protections and improvements addressing immediate concerns.

Today’s recommendations are a good first step and l encourage legislative leaders to support these changes instead of defending this bad contract that will hurt working families.”

I-77 Mobility Partners statement:

"I-77 Mobility Partners only learned this afternoon of the recommendations outlined by the North Carolina Department of Transportation in today's Local Advisory Group meeting. We have made significant upgrades to the project already and we are always looking for ways to enhance the customer experience.  In the meantime, we remain focused on completing construction and improving the commute for a large number of motorists in the greater Charlotte and Lake Norman region when the express lanes open later this year."

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