Huntersville preparing for I-77 widening
by Staff Writer
The widening of Interstate 77 between the Brookshire Freeway (Exit 11) and Catawba Ave. (Exit 28) has recently become a much higher priority at the state level than it was only two years ago when it ranked 92nd in priority on the regional planning organization’s list of transportation projects.
The issue has been discussed at several Huntersville town board meetings, including on Monday night. It centers around the project’s place on the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (MUMPO’s) Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP).
According to Huntersville Transportation Director Bill Coxe, the momentum for the I-77 widening project began to build last summer after MUMPO included a new project, which would convert the existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-77 to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes – lanes that can be used by drivers willing to pay a variable toll (the worse the traffic congestion, the higher the toll), or for free by vehicles with three or more occupants – and extend them to Exit 28 in both directions.
That momentum started to build considerably with the consideration of a public-private partnership for the project, wherein a private company would help fund the construction, contribute to debt repayment via toll revenue, operate the HOT lanes (collect the tolls, likely by using in-car transponders to assess them), and maintain the HOT lanes for the 50-year life of the contract.
Enthusiasm for the project has increased so much that the latest Request For Proposals (RFP) calls for two HOT lanes in each direction between the Brookshire Freeway and Exit 28, including direct access from the HOT lanes to the Brookshire Freeway so that HOT laners don’t have to cut across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit, and a single HOT lane in each direction from Exit 28 to NC 150 (Exit 36) in Mooresville.
Private funding possibilities
The prospect of having a private partner to help fund and–more importantly–bear sole responsibility for maintaining new interstate lanes has gone a long way towards making the I-77 widening project go from an eventuality to something that could get underway in the next few years.
But the fact that the new lanes will be under the authority of a private entity is worrisome.
“The best example I can give (of the potential problems) is the bridge proposed over I-77, near Sam Furr Road going from Statesville Road to Northcross Drive,” Coxe said.
That project is in the LRTP, meaning it will be funded at some point in the next 25 years. But that will be a moot point, Coxe said, if the private company, or concession team, responsible for building and administering the new HOT lanes uses up the entire median between the north- and southbound lanes, leaving no room for bridge footers.
“If you want to do anything in this (I-77) corridor (other than the construction of the new HOT lanes) then you have to have a negotiation with the private concession team (before design specifications are finalized),” Coxe continued. “What we don’t want them to do is do things on I-77 that will make it more expensive or impossible later on to do the things we want to do.”
Cornelius Assistant Town Manager Andrew Grant serves on an I-77/HOT lane technical committee that he says is working to ensure such issues don’t arise.
“We’re trying to mitigate that possibility as much as possible,” Grant said. “We’re trying to ensure that everyone in the region retains the right to build those projects that go over, under or adjacent to the toll lane project.”
NCDOT Division 10 Engineer Louis Mitchell said the transportation department tries to plan for future development as well, but that’s not always a possibility.
“Part of the (request for proposals) is to solicit input from the towns and the MPO,” Mitchell said. “But I don’t think there’s anyone with a crystal ball to be able to design where a bridge or a footing is going to go years from now. We are trying to front-load the contract to anticipate (towns’ future plans) so that those concepts are in the contract.”