At the meeting, Widen I-77 announced that they would be holding a working session on Jan. 21 at Cornelius Town Hall, but are rescheduling due to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

The new working session is at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22 at Cornelius Town Hall, 21445 Catawba Avenue, Cornelius, N.C. 28031.

by Jackson Sveen

CORNELIUS – Interstate 77 needs an expansion, but some citizens are determined to prove that toll lanes are the “wrong way” to get it done.

The group, Widen I-77, met Jan. 14 in Cornelius, and dozens of Lake Norman and Charlotte residents, as well as representatives from local and state government and officials from the N.C. Department of Transportation heard what makes the proposed high occupancy toll lanes such a hot-button issue.

“I’ve been watching this toll issue for several years,” said Widen I-77 member Vince Winegardner. “I saw the implementation schedule (of the HOT lanes) and I said this is no longer talking, this is doing. It’s basically approved by our MUMPO (Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization) and the towns and state have supported it. It’s going to happen unless our leaders take action to turn this around.”

NCDOT is suggesting that the expansion of I-77 be funded through the installation of high occupancy toll lanes running from Charlotte up to Exit 36.

The HOT lanes would be built and managed by a P3, or public-private partnership, under a 50-year contract.

But the Widen I-77 group believes the road should be expanded with general-purpose lanes instead of the privately funded HOT lanes.

Kurt Naas, a founder of the group, gave a presentation regarding the costs of widening the interstate and alternatives to building HOT lanes.

According to Naas and others in the group, the HOT lanes would: Cost much more than general purpose lanes, require additional improvements with no benefits to Lake Norman commuters, ensure congestion instead of relieving it, limit the ability to make future improvement, lock us into an agreement with a private company for 50 years and negatively affect our economy.

Paying for a faster commute

The group’s research indicates the approved HOT lane model would cost at least six times as much as building general-purpose lanes.

The cost of general-purpose lanes from Exit 23 to Exit 28 would cost $50 million, compared to an estimated $353.5 million for the toll lanes.

Mitchell couldn’t confirm the costs presented by Widen I-77.

“Those aren’t in line with engineering estimates that we have,” said Mitchell. “The number that we gave them, we are estimating to be $500-550 million.”

Four private companies, three of which are located outside the U.S., are in the running for landing the contract to build and run the HOT lanes on I-77. The state is paying each company $500,000 for their proposals, which are due in July. The four companies bidding on the project are Charlotte Access Mobility Group, backed by Dragados USA; Cintra infraestructuras, backed by Ferrovial Agroman; Metrolina Development Partners, backed by Obrascon Huarte Lain; and Char-Meck Development partners, backed by Vinci Concessions. Only Dragados USA is headquartered in the United States.

“We think that it sends a bad message for business that want to relocate here, that we are already at a tax disadvantage,” Naas said. “It’s an expensive, non-solution that limits improvements and negatively impacts our economy. It’s especially disappointing when the state thinks the most important thing is to get traffic in and out of downtown Charlotte. In our book, we call that a calamity.”

Leaders field widening questions

After the presentation, several leaders answered questions, including Naas, Louis Mitchell of the NC Department of Transportation, N.C. District 103 Rep. Bill Brawley, Cornelius Mayor Lynette Rinker and Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy.

Louis Mitchell, state DOT division engineer over Mecklenburg, Anson, Stanley, Union and Cabarrus counties, called the DOT a “resource-driven agency.”

“We’re trying to make quality-of-life decisions,” he said. “There’s no doubt there’s congestion on I-77, and that’s why we are visiting this corridor. With the confined resources we have right now, vehicles are becoming more fuel-efficient, so there is less and less revenue from gas taxes. We aren’t going to force any project on this region that MUMPO doesn’t endorse.”

Brawley said he helped pass the bill that will authorize the HOT lanes, as the chair of the transportation committee for the N.C. House of Representatives.

“These projects are incredibly difficult to do with the regulations in place. We need to go after regulations and simplify,” Brawley said. “We need to make sure the money that is paid for roads, goes just for roads. I pushed to get that bill passed. I did a pretty good job arguing for it and I will tell you why. I honestly believe in my heart of hearts, if we had to wait for general lanes, I would not be alive when they were built. I will at least be able to use the (HOT) lanes if I want to.”

Members of Widen I-77 urged the community members at the meeting to contact local officials and go to the group’s website to get involved.

“What we want our leaders from Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville to do, is to convene an ad hoc committee to investigate alternative solutions to the P3 HOT lane option,” said Winegardner. “We also need to convince NCDOT to put the brakes on and postpone awarding that contract until all the alternatives have been vetted.”

Breaking out the checkbook

A look at what the HOT lanes could cost*

Construction from Exit 23-28 $50 million

Conversion from HOV to HOT lanes $7 million

Adding an additional HOT lane $50 million

Widening lanes in Charlotte $16.5 million

Operating costs for 50 years $100 million

Profit to private managing company $100 million

Total for lake area $323.5 million

*According to data from Widen I-77