by Brian Carlton

The N.C. Department of Transportation expects to start construction in fall 2013 on a toll lane project that could reduce congestion on Interstate 77.

Plans call for one High Occupancy Toll lane in each direction along I-77, from Exit 28 in Cornelius to Exit 36 in Mooresville. HOT lanes will be built in the median. They could open for use in fall 2015.

Drivers without passengers would be charged a toll, with rates changing during peak driving times.

“This is something we’re working on through a public-private partnership,” NCDOT spokesperson Jen Thompson said. “If we don’t use this method, it’ll be 10 years at least, before the funding is available.”

Funding has long been the issue in getting the project off the ground.

The section of I-77 that runs through the Lake Norman area was built in the 1970s and has not been expanded since. The regional transportation authority has more than 200 projects on its list, with the ability to fund less than half of those. The I-77 HOT Lane project is ranked near the bottom of the list.

A price tag has not been attached to the project, as NCDOT officials say the cost could change, depending on the final design.

Another issue relates to construction and design. Two other HOT lane segments have been planned for and approved along I-77, stretching from I-85 to Exit 28. The third segment however, has to go over Lake Norman and to do that, NCDOT has to get permission from Duke Energy to widen the causeways, as the utility company operates the lake.

NCDOT engineer Louis Mitchell said the state hasn’t discussed what form the lanes could take with Duke Energy, but it plans to have that conversation when the project is further along.

“Typically, we go to them on a project like this when we’re at 25 percent of design,” Mitchell said of working with Duke Energy. “Right now, we’re just collecting information from the public and planning.”

That’s why NCDOT members held the public meetings Aug. 1 and 2 to get public input. The Aug. 1 meeting was held at the Cornelius Town Hall, with staff members on hand to answer questions and provide data.

Mitchell assured residents that the project they saw now would be the same one when it goes out to bid.

“Nothing will change,” Mitchell said. “You won’t see additional lanes or anything not covered in the meetings. If we changed the number of lanes, we would have to start this process all over.”