Cover Story: NC turning to tolls

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - New information to help get traffic moving on one of the area's most congested roads.

The plan will help you avoid traffic on the Charlotte outerbelt I-485, but it will cost you.

North Carolina DOT has found the money to widen the southern leg of the freeway.

But instead of adding one additional lane in each direction road planners would like to add two lanes each way.

It's cheaper to do them both at the same time, but now is where the I-485 widening takes a new turn.

It's been needed for years.  State senator Bob Rucho knows it.

"When I first drove on that road before the cars came onto it.. we had no traffic problems because it wasn't opened. But once you put the cars on there the first day it was functionally obsolete," he joked.

And it's only gotten worse.  Now relief is finally coming in a major way.

Next spring state DOT will award a contract to widen I-485 through south Charlotte from I-77 to Johnston Road (Highway 521 which runs through Ballantyne) adding two lanes in each direction in the median.

One lane that will be free.  The second lane will cost if you choose to use it.

"By using this toll as an alternative it has really given us an option that we didn't have before," Rucho said.

Money collected from tolls pays for the second additional lane.

Who would want to pay?  Those who want to get to their destination faster.

How will the tolls be collected?  Not through a toll booth, which would slow traffic down.  Technology lets them collect it electronically, through what's called a Quick Pass Transponder.

You buy one, put it on the dash or your car and when you go through an overhead monitor it deducts money from your pre-paid account.

If you're without a transponder overhead cameras take a picture of your license plate and send you the bill.

It's being done on the state's first toll road which opened near Raleigh last week.

Eighty percent of the money for our roads comes from the gas tax.   With cars using less fuel and people driving less it's a prescription for trouble for NC DOT.

"They have a lot to say grace over and there just simply isn't adequate revenues at the state or the federal level," said Ned Curran, an executive who has led local transportation committees.

It's why the state is turning to tolls as a way to pay for future roads.

In addition to tolling a lane of I-485 in the south, the Charlotte region will see a Monroe Bypass toll road, Garden Parkway around Gastonia.  And it's considering tolling one lane of I-77 north of Center City Charlotte.

"As Charlotte continues to grow more people come here.. we've simply got to have mobility.. movement of goods, services, people, lifestyle everything. So we want to keep up with it and the only way to do that is to toll ourselves," said Curran.

NC DOT is also considering tolling sections of I-95 in the eastern part of the state.

This marks a major departure for North Carolina.  The state is getting away from the long-standing principle that all of our roads will be free.

The construction contract for the I-485 widening is expected to be awarded next spring.  The work is expected to take about two and a half years.

If the toll concept proves successful road planners are talking about widening all of the southern leg of I-485 through to Matthews.

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