• 9 Investigates: The real cost of toll lanes

    By: Scott Wickersham


    CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The North Carolina DOT is close to finalizing a financial contract with a Spanish company to build toll roads on Interstate 77 from Mooresville to uptown Charlotte.

    But not much is known about exactly how much it will cost or how construction will affect traffic, and the public has only seen animations of how it will look when it's done.

    To get answers, Channel 9 anchor Scott Wickersham traveled to Dallas, Texas where Cintra is building a similar toll road. Channel 9’s investigation found that Texans are paying a hefty price to drive congestion-free -- and one group there says people in Charlotte should be very concerned.

    READ: NCDOT toll lane proposal

    The Dallas metro area is home to 6.5 million people -- and heavy traffic.

    Highway 635 is one of the worst. The state didn't have money to add lanes, so they made a deal with Cintra to build toll lanes next to the existing lanes.

    VOTE: Do you want toll lanes on I-77?

    But taxpayers there are still kicking in $500 million -- 18 percent of the $2.7 billion deal.

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    Wickersham drove the first open 3-mile section to see what Charlotte drivers can expect. He first saw tall white signs, called "humongous" and "confusing" by a local newspaper. They tell drivers a toll section is beginning and the price for that section.

    The highest Channel 9 saw was $1.45.

    RESOURCES: NCDOT info on toll lane project

    But the price can change every five minutes, going higher if traffic gets too heavy to discourage use and keep traffic flowing.

    The price is capped at $2.62 for the 3.16 mile section, but can go up each year with inflation.

    Read our past coverage:

    Sensors read express passes that drivers can get for their car. If you don't have a pass, cameras record your license plate and you receive a bill in the mail, along with an extra fee.

    "It really is this huge double tax scheme that’s going to benefit these private developers," said Terri Hall, who formed a group to fight toll roads in Dallas called Texans United for Reform and Freedom. She worries about giving public infrastructure and land to a private company, and said those who can’t afford the toll will suffer the most.

    "You are either going to be stuck in gridlock on the free route, or pay big bucks to take the toll lanes," Hall said.

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    Cintra agreed to speak to Channel 9 and give a tour of their operation until Wickersham told them he was speaking to Hall.

    They then canceled, saying they would only talk if Channel 9 didn't talk to her.

    Hall said she's not surprised.

    "They will be able to charge tolls even after the debt is retired, even after it’s paid for," she said. "Then it becomes this profit-making enterprise for a private company, on the backs of Texas commuters."

    READ: Highlights of deal between NCDOT and Cintra

    But some Dallas leaders said it was either toll roads or decades of congestion.

    "There was no way we could come up with $2 billion," said Michael Morris with the local council of governments. He said Texas has not raised the fuel tax since 1991, and more efficient cars are using less gas, meaning less money for roads.

    "I wish we still had pay-as-you-go funding. I wish the revenues from Washington and the state capital would fund all of our needs, in your fast-growing community as well as ours, but that obviously isn't true," said Morris.

    And then there's the question of what will happen to the toll road when the contract with Cintra runs out in 50 years. Morris said in the case of Highway 635, it will probably stay a toll road.

    "I don’t think the revenue picture 30 to 50 years from now will be any better. In fact, I think it will be a lot worse," he said.

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    Hall said that is further proof that North Carolina taxpayers should fight the I-77 toll road. She said if they build one in Charlotte, more could soon be coming.

    "The problem with public-private partnerships is that it’s sort of like giving our politicians a drug," said Hall. "You can't get them to kick the habit once it starts."

    In Charlotte, Cintra said work could start on I-77 toll roads early next year, and take four years to complete.

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