Fresh off a contentious late-night Charlotte City Council meeting, the chairman of the state’s Board of Transportation made the case for toll lanes on Interstate 77 before about 190 professionals in real estate and affiliated industries on Tuesday.
Rapid population growth and limited space for road expansion have constrained the city’s ability to ease traffic congestion, and the answer lies in multiple and novel solutions, said Ned Curran, the North Carolina Department of Transportation board chairman and president and CEO of commercial developer Bissell Cos.
“We’re not going to be able to widen our way out of this,” he told the audience gathered at Charlotte Country Club for a monthly luncheon meeting of Commercial Real Estate Women’s Charlotte chapter.
“We are where we are,” he said. “We have to make decisions based on what we have.”
The council, at the request of Gov. Pat McCrory, voted Monday to affirm its support of a transportation strategy for the region that will result in a triangle of highways around the city with both toll and free lanes. Work has already begun or will in coming years on such projects on Interstate 485 from Interstate 77 to U.S. 74; on U.S. Highway 74 from Interstate 277 to Margaret Wallace Road; and on I-77 from exit 36 in Iredell County to the South Carolina state line.
Although the U.S. Highway 74 and I-485 projects will be managed by the state, the state has signed a 50-year contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Spanish company Cintra Infraestructuras, to build and manage toll lanes from the Brookshire Freeway to Mooresville.
The projects are part of a long-term plan approved by the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization. In voting to reaffirm its support, the City Council directed its CRTPO representative, Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles, to vote similarly at a Jan. 20 CRTPO meeting. Because the city’s vote is weighted based on population representation, it accounts for 46 percent of the body’s vote, meaning Lyles’ vote is likely to be the deciding one.
Politicians and residents of communities in northern Mecklenburg and southern Iredell counties have mounted considerable opposition to the toll lanes, questioning the soundness of the construction contract, the process whereby it was awarded, and the economics of the toll lanes.
Curran’s comments followed an outline of upcoming transportation infrastructure improvements given by Tracy Dodson, a transportation board member and vice president of Lincoln Harris, specializing in large-scale development and brokerage services.
Dodson said the Charlotte area’s population, which has been rapidly growing over the past two decades, is expected to grow by another 400,000 people by 2040.
Curran said that since large-scale highway construction was undertaken 60 years ago following passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, transportation planners have learned much about what works and what doesn’t.
Curran said that adding general purpose lanes alleviates congestion for a while, but the lanes soon fill back up as drivers gravitate toward high-speed roads for travel.
He said that projects created through public-private partnerships take less time and are less expensive than taxpayer-funded road expansions. The I-77 toll lanes are expected to open in 2019, and cost the state $95 million. I-77 Mobility Partners would set tolls, based on traffic flow, to recoup its investment.
“Public-private partnerships are part of our future,” he said.
Curran also said that one of the elements of the contract that has drawn the most fire — a noncompete provision that would require the state to compensate the contractor should it build additional free lanes in the future — is not as significant as opponents have indicated.
“Of course we’re going to do things in 50 years” along that stretch, he said. “We may or may not have to compensate them. There’s a cost to everything.”