NCDOT: New toll lanes definitely coming to I-77 in Charlotte

WBTV Investigates: Paid lanes would be added from MM 11 to SC line
NCDOT says adding paid toll lanes to a southern portion of I-77 is a question of how, not if.
Published: Feb. 16, 2023 at 5:34 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Transportation told WBTV on Thursday that new, paid toll lanes are definitely coming to I-77 from mile marker 11 to the South Carolina state line.

The question, the spokeswoman said, wasn’t whether any new lanes would be tolled but “how they will be delivered.”

The revelation comes one day after the Charlotte Regional Transit Planning Organization voted to move forward with studying options to add paid toll lanes to that stretch of I-77. That vote was prompted by an unsolicited proposal from Cintra—the company that runs the current I-77 toll lanes—to build and operate lanes on the southern stretch of interstate.

Previously, CRTPO members and others had indicated that the discussion spurred by the Cintra proposal was whether to build new toll lanes or wait until money is available to build new free lanes.

Transportation planners have said it could take decades—as much as 50 years—before money is available under current road funding models to build more free lanes on that stretch of I-77.

A WBTV investigation previously unearthed data showing NCDOT projects congestion on that stretch of interstation could become constant gridlock at all hours of the day if more highway capacity isn’t added.

Previous: CRTPO passes I-77 toll lane proposal, NCDOT to conduct study as plan moves to next step

In a statement on Thursday, NCDOT spokeswoman Carly Olexik said NCDOT has been planning on adding paid toll lanes to that stretch of highway since the CRTPO first included adding paid lanes in its transportation plan in 2014.

“In 2014, the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization submitted to NCDOT an I-77 south express lanes project as a toll project. In accordance with that submission, the project is still prioritized by the state fund as a toll project,” Olexik said.

In a follow-up email, she said the CRTPO could opt to remove the paid toll lanes from its plan.

News that NCDOT considered adding paid lanes to I-77 a certainty came as a surprise to N.C. Senator Vickie Sawyer (R-Iredell), a lawmaker closely involved in transportation issues in the General Assembly.

“It really is news to me. It surprised me,” Sawyer said in an interview Thursday. “I thought it was still up for debate as to whether those roads were going to be managed or just a traditional widening.”

Sawyer pointed to the fact that it could take decades to find ways to pay to add free lanes on I-77 as an example of why the state needs to revolutionize the way it pays for transportation and infrastructure.

“We’ve got a blessing with so many folks moving in and having businesses relocate here but part of that blessing is also a curse. How do we pay for all of that infrastructure that these new businesses and residents are placing upon us? And south 77 is exactly the problem that we have,” she said.

“How do we get the money for that? Is it tolling? I don’t know. But I definitely will be on top of this from here on out.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman, who recently joined the CRTPO on behalf of the county, said she voted in favor of moving forward with studying options to add paid toll lanes because the alternative—waiting decades—was “a nonstarter.”

“First of all, the notion of public roads being managed lanes offends me. If offends my sense of basic fairness that some people can whiz by fast in public lanes while people who cannot afford to pay are stuck in slower and more congested public lanes,” Altman wrote in an email to constituents on Thursday.

“But even more than that, I am offended by years of political malpractice by elected officials which has given rise to managed lanes. The funding crisis for state roads has been foreseeable for decades as cars have been becoming more fuel efficient thereby generating less revenues from the gas tax.”

Wednesday’s vote by the CRTPO to move forward studying options to add paid lanes still does not determine what will happen moving forward. NCDOT will study the options and report back to the planning organization.