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Chamber hosts I-77 toll-road panel

Local and state transportation officials advanced the cause for adding 26 miles of toll roads along Interstate 77 at a Friday luncheon sponsored by the Charlotte Chamber. Some 50 attendees came to the event, dubbed “Toll Lanes on Charlotte Highways: What Does That Mean For Me?” to hear Tim Gibbs of the Charlotte Department of Transportation; Scott Cole of the N.C. Department of Transportation; Ned Curran, chair of the N.C. Board of Transportation and president and CEO of Bissell; and David Ungemah of Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering and design firm.

Topics ranged from explanations on the causes of traffic (finite routes and lanes faced with surging demand) to ways of regulating the flow of highway traffic (queuing cars at ramp entrances; installing high-occupancy lanes; rationing the days each car is permitted to drive on a highway; and a pricing system for access). Curran spoke about the severe shortage in funding for infrastructure projects – on both the state and federal level – that has led to public-private partnerships such as the one the N.C. DOT has with I-77 Mobility Partners to build the managed lanes.

“We have to find things to fill the substantial (budget) gaps,” he said. “Managed lanes is one of the solutions.” Curran said the project has required “extensive planning” over the years and cannot be stopped now.

The proposed $648 million project has no shortage of opponents. Consumer groups, as well as state and local officials, have criticized the plan and called for the N.C. DOT to terminate its 50-year agreement with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Spanish company Cintra. Many have called the toll lanes elitist, while others have criticized provisions in the contract that require taxpayers to compensate I-77 Mobility Partners for lost revenue stemming from any improvements, including the addition of general purpose lanes, on the corridor between Brookshire Freeway and Exit 36.

The department contends that dropping the deal would cost more than $100 million in damages and the loss of $145 million in state transportation funds.

Asked how much the managed lanes would cost, the panelists said pricing would be “very small” during light traffic, with costs going up as congestion along the general lanes increases.  Ungemah said that a 10-mile trip would cost between $2 and $4 during light traffic, a figure that would rise to between $12 and $14 during the “absolute worst congestion.”

The N.C. DOT says the project will offer options to drivers maneuvering the clogged interstate, while “bringing in millions of dollars to the region in jobs and economic development.”

The entire 26-mile project is slated for completion in 2018.

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