More I-77 toll lanes a possibility as other options present problems

Data presented by NCDOT shows the interstate congestion south of Uptown could become unbearable without expansion
Drivers WBTV spoke with over the last two months universally rejected the idea of managed toll lanes on I-77 to the state line.
Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 5:45 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A lack of options has local and state officials seriously considering a proposed toll lane on I-77 between the South Carolina state line and 2-77 in Uptown. Data from the North Carolina Department of Transportation shows traffic congestion by 2050 would be almost unbearable if there is no expansion of I-77 by that point.

Cintra, the company that completed the managed toll lane on I-77 north of Uptown, submitted an unsolicited and secret bid to the North Carolina Department of Transportation to build a new managed lane expansion from 2-77 to the South Carolina state line.

Anecdotally, if there’s anything less popular with commuters than rush hour congestion, it’s the possibility of a toll lane.

Drivers WBTV spoke with over the last two months universally rejected the idea of managed toll lanes on I-77 to the state line.

But drivers might have to decide which they like least or be stuck in an everlasting idle.

Also Read: Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office changes traffic stop policy

Data from the NCDOT shows just how bad the traffic is now and how bad it could get.

At the intersection of I-77 and Arrowood heading north, traffic is moving at a glacial 10-20 mph for two hours in the morning between 7:15 and 9:15.

The evenings are worse. Both northbound and southbound rush hour starts around 3:30 pm with average speeds on some sections of I-77 stuck between 20 and 30 mph.

The worst sections are southbound between 2-77 and Woodlawn from 5-6 pm and between Tyvola and Arrowood from 5-6 pm.

Crashes on I-77 south of Uptown are more than double compared to similar state roads.

“And all of that was a context for us to think about what our options were for I-77,” Charlotte District 7 Councilman Ed Driggs said.

Republican Charlotte Councilman Ed Driggs is the city’s new transportation committee chair and the city’s representative on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization.

CRTPO members requested the data on I-77 after receiving the proposal to build toll lanes. The state tried to keep the company behind the proposal secret but we now know it was Cintra, the same company that manages the existing I-77 toll lanes.

Flat-out rejecting toll lanes comes with some complications.

“When it came down to looking at the funding for it, there were a couple of constraints,” Driggs said.

NCDOT has something called a “Corridor Cap” that limits the amount of funding that can go toward a single stretch of road per year.

“And based on that, they projected that the delivery date wouldn’t be until 2045 or 2050,” Driggs said.

“So we were talking kind of never Neverland in terms of delivery of that road if we just waited for the state funding.”

By that point, NCDOT projects this stretch of I77 could be at or above capacity anywhere from 15 to 17 hours out of a 24-hour day, according to the NCDOT data. Meaning those rush hour windows would only get longer and slower.

When it comes strictly to I77, and not other transit alternatives, the options are do nothing, wait, or explore managed toll lanes.

County Commissioner Pat Cotham was furious when an unsolicited, secret bid for a managed toll lane on I-77 was proposed without transparency being applied first.

“I don’t want it to continue to be explored. I want it to stop,” Cotham told WBTV.

Cotham said she doesn’t want to work with Cintra in Mecklenburg County again but was encouraged that if the process continues it would be open to a competitive bidding process and other companies.

“I’m going to be watching very carefully to make sure that we have a competitive bidding process,” Driggs said.

“My main objective is to make sure that we get good value, that we have reliability on the delivery and that the bidders were required to sharpen their pencils as much as possible to give us good terms.”

There’s no clear timeline on what’s next but CRTPO members tell WBTV they will continue to work with NCDOT to stay updated on whether there’s a competitive bidding process and what terms would come with new managed lanes.

There was major apprehension that this bid was originally placed in secret and Cintra’s name was hidden, and the board members have made it clear the bar for transparency is even higher now than it was before.