Advocates point to developments in Texas, DC in push against I-77 tolls

Advocates point to developments in Texas, DC in push against I-77 tolls

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Local anti-toll activists are hoping recent toll developments in other parts of the country have influence on state leaders currently deciding the fate of the I-77 express lanes project.

Governor Roy Cooper announced in November the formation of the I-77 Citizens Advisory Committee in November. The group was formed to help review recommendations compiled by a private consulting firm that was contracted earlier this year to study what to do with the I-77 toll lanes project.

The lanes, which are currently under construction on a stretch of I-77 from Iredell County to uptown Charlotte, have been controversial since their inception.

Many residents in north Mecklenburg County have opposed the lanes, which the state has contracted the Spanish-owned company Cintra to build and operate.

Under the state's current agreement with Cintra, the company will operate the roads and reap the toll revenue for 50 years.

In Indiana, a toll road that Cintra purchased from the state went bankrupt after many drivers stopped using the road because the tolls had increased.

Similarly, traffic has plummeted on the Chicago Skyway after Cintra bought the toll rights to that road and raised the rates.

In Texas, Cintra built and operated SH-130. That road went bankrupt in 2016, just one month after a WBTV crew drove the road.

Now, Texas leaders have approved a plan to cancel all future toll projects.

The Texas Transportation Commission voted unanimously to cancel all future road projects involving tolls in its ten year construction plan.

The move, which came earlier in December, came after pressure from top state leaders including Governor Greg Abbott and anti-toll activists.

Local anti-toll activist-turned-Cornelius Commissioner Kurt Naas said he hopes leaders in North Carolina are paying attention to the decision in Texas.

"Texas has figured this out, that tolling is more expensive to build, more expensive to finance, more expensive to operate and it's just not a good return on the taxpayer dollar," Naas said.

Meanwhile, Naas also pointed to recent developments in the Washington, D.C. area as another harbinger of what's to come for the I-77 express lanes if it stays under Cintra control.

Drivers are seeing tolls of up to $34 or more to use recently-opened express lanes built by Cintra and operated by the Virginia Department of Transportation along I-66 near D.C.

Like the current plan for the I-77 express lanes, there is no cap on the amount drivers can be charged to use the I-66 lanes.

"Private tolls rely on congestion in the general purpose lanes to drive revenue, so the more congestion the higher the revenues are able to go," Naas said.

A spokeswoman for Cintra's local subsidiary building the I-77 lanes, I-77 Mobility Partners, had an out of office message on her email Tuesday that said she would respond to new inquiries after the new year.

A spokeswoman for North Carolina Department of Transportation issued the following statement:

"While we do monitor other express lane projects for lessons learned, we can't speak to what is going on in other states. What we can say here, is that we're evaluating all the options presented in the Mercator Advisors' report and are forming a local advisory group that will be made up of representatives from local communities to provide advice and input on those options."

Editors note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Cintra operates the I-66 toll lanes. In fact, the company built the lanes but VDOT manages them.

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