I-77 Mobility Partners says NCDOT would have to pay them if hardened shoulders become reality

CHARLOTTE — The North Carolina Department of Transportation has a proposal to reduce travel nightmares on Interstate 77, north of Charlotte, but the company that owns the tolls on the highway says there would be a hefty price to pay.

If you’ve driven on I-77 between Charlotte and Mooresville, you likely have had a bone to pick with traffic from time to time.

“I-77 is always backed up,” said Chrissy Bell, a driver who uses the interstate a couple of times a week. “It’s always backed up.”

“It’s hectic! I think it’s misused, especially the toll lanes,” added Kefle Fesseha, another driver who said he uses the highway every day. “I can’t stand it.”

NCDOT is examining areas between exits 19 and 35. The analysis will help determine more specific locations, which have not been identified.

Motorists could use the shoulders for free.

It’s something some elected leaders who represent people living along the I-77 corridor agree with.

“They need another lane that they don’t have to pay for,” said Huntersville Mayor pro tem Stacy Phillips.

“This proposal – the hardened shoulders that provide another option for local drivers – is a really great idea,” added state Sen. Natasha Marcus, who represents many communities along the corridor.

However, I-77 Mobility Partners sees things differently.

Cintra owns and operates the tolls. It is also an investor in I-77 Mobility Partners, a public-private partnership with NCDOT that finances, develops, designs, constructs, operates, and maintains the 26-mile tollway.

In a statement to Channel 9, I-77 Mobility Partners said, “Pursuant to the comprehensive agreement, modifying the outside shoulders adjacent to the general-purpose lanes to accept general purpose lane traffic is only permitted with fair compensation.”

Channel 9 asked how much would be considered “fair compensation,” but I-77 Mobility Partners would not specify an amount.

Marcus said she’ll let the lawyers figure that part out.

“I will just say, speaking for drivers in the Lake Norman area, we feel that Cintra has already gotten a pretty good bite out of our wallets, and it seems to us a little bit greedy for them to be compensated even more,” Marcus said.

Phillips agreed but said she doesn’t believe the hardened shoulder project would ever happen because of the contract NCDOT signed with Cintra to bring toll lanes to the interstate.

“Oh my gosh! You want to talk about a deal with the devil,” Phillips said. “The contract with Cintra was so muddled and so perverted that Cintra would basically own 77.”

Some drivers, such as Fesseha, said that’s not Cintra’s fault.

“It’s the politicians who signed it,” he said. “So, you have to swallow that bill.”

NCDOT plans to start buying the needed land for the hardened-shoulder project in 2023 and hopes to start construction in 2024.

NCDOT would not comment on any “fair compensation” it might have to pay but noted the plan is technically still in draft form.

(Watch the video below: Cintra requests I-77 construction extension, faces fines if not done by end of month)