by Frank DeLoache

CHARLOTTE – By December, state officials expect to have settled on the type of financing plan they will use to install high-occupancy toll lanes on Interstate 77 from Charlotte into north Mecklenburg.
They are leaning toward a partnership with private company – or group of companies – and also are considering extending the toll lanes to Exit 36 in Mooresville.
In a presentation to Charlotte City Council Monday night, Oct. 3, Gene Conti, secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation, said state engineers already are talking to federal regulators about the environmental issues of adding lanes and widening the bridges crossing the lake.
State engineers will convert existing high-occupancy lanes to toll lanes going in both directions on I-77 from its interchange with Interstate 85 on the south to Interstate 485 on the north. But one of the biggest challenges for the project would come in adding about 13 miles of toll lanes in both directions, roughly from Huntersville’s first exit (23) to Mooresville’s main exit (36).
When first conceived, the high-occupancy toll project would have stopped at I-77 Exit 28/Catawba Avenue in Cornelius.
State engineers also are considering building two toll lanes in each direction instead of one, Conti said. The state and consultants believe that I-77 will eventually need four lanes in both directions through north Mecklenburg and south Iredell. So while making the effort to add two lanes, the reasoning goes, why not complete the expansion that’s really needed.
If the state does approve a public-private partnership to build and operate the toll lanes, Conti said his agency expects to pick the private development group in a year – by October 2012.
“We hope to generate competition in the private sector with our financial model,” he added.
Public-private partnerships have installed and operated high-occupancy toll lanes with success in Houston, Miami and San Diego, Conti said, and Atlanta has such a project on Interstate 75.
Though most of his presentation offered hypotheticals, Conti said one option – to extend the high-occupancy toll lanes south to Brookshire Boulevard – may prove too expensive and not offer enough payback for a private partner. Taking the lanes that far south would have drop drivers off very close to Uptown Charlotte.
During Conti’s presentation, members of Charlotte City Council seemed mostly skeptical about how the state will collect the tolls, especially from out-of-town tourists.
The state will most likely collect the tolls in two ways, Conti said. Regular users can carry transponders that digital sensors will register when the car uses the lane. The system will deduct the toll from an account that the driver keeps.
Without a transponder, the state will digitally photograph the license plates of passing cars and send a toll bill to the person registered. Leaders want to create a network between states that makes it easier for North Carolina to make sure out-of-state drivers pay their bills, Conti said.