For several weeks, Gov. Roy Cooper and other administration officials had built expectations for a solution to the controversial toll lane contract on I-77 north of Charlotte.
Cooper promised a “positive change” to be announced August 15. But what was delivered? A whole lot of nothing.
I-77 will open with two new toll lanes. Exiting the contract is apparently not an option.
In a presentation laden with jargon and acronyms, N.C. Department of Transportation Jim Trogdon laid out a path forward that does nothing to change the I-77 toll lane situation in the short term — and makes the likelihood of any changes moving forward very slim.
How’d we get in this mess?
I-77 from Charlotte north to the Lake Norman area is the most congested highway in the state of North Carolina. But for years, the state DOT has said there is no money to widen it.
But in the early 2000s, the DOT hit on a solution. They’d contract with a Spanish company named Cintra to build two toll lanes for most of the corridor, allowing them to collect tolls to use the new lanes to make their money.
Then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed the contract, angering traditional Republican voters in the suburban areas north of his hometown. In 2016, those precincts voted much less frequently for McCrory than they had in 2012, more than accounting for Cooper’s slim margin of victory.
Cintra has been working on constructing the new lanes for several years, and is expected to open them in early 2019.
What was on the table?
Two major ways forward had been proposed.
One, called “Complete and Delete,” would have let Cintra finish construction of the toll lanes and have the state buy them out, making the lanes free.
A second would buy out one lane, and let Cintra collect tolls on the second new lane.
Both would cost more than $250 million. Ways to pay for them were on the table, but are currently stalled in the General Assembly.
One type of compromise would have let the state of North Carolina collect tolls on the lanes to help pay for it.
What’s the solution the Cooper administration just announced?
The solution Trogdon announced at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce went in a completely different direction.
While he acknowledged that people wanted the contract ended, he said that was not feasible. Instead, he proposed a series of smaller changes to the I-77 corridor — but said that they’d all have to go through the state’s standard project scoring system to be considered.
- Harden shoulders for use during peak times.
- Create more auxiliary lanes to get people on short trips between interchanges.
- Pursue converting one toll lane to a free lane north of Exit 23.
- Continue to re-evaluate.
The rub? None of them are expected to score well. And even if they do, the projects wouldn’t get started until 2025.
In the meantime, the NCDOT will work with Cintra to think about caps on toll charges and create discounts for frequent users.
None of this is certain. Trogdon says he’ll come up with a plan by next summer.
My quick take: This was not a good handling of the situation.
Cooper was swept into office in part on promises to help the Lake Norman area with the one-of-a-kind toll lane project on I-77.
Since his inauguration, the Lake Norman area has waited pretty darn patiently to see what Cooper’s DOT would do. This August 15 meeting was promised to be the answer. Instead, it was a disappointment.
Money is an issue, to be sure. But there were indications that legislative leaders were willing to tap into budget surpluses to fund a real solution here. There was no sign Wednesday that Cooper’s administration worked with General Assembly leaders on a joint solution.
Will the I-77 toll lanes claim a second governor? We’ll see in two years.