CHARLOTTE – The Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Transportation Organization unanimously gave the green light to the toll lanes project on Interstate 77.
The group, charged with setting transportation priorities for the Charlotte region, voted to include the high-occupancy toll lanes project to its short- and long-term plans.
Dozens of Lake Norman residents attended the meeting to voice their opposition to the project. Several carried signs with messages like “Stop the Tillis Tolls” and “We Beg for Mercy. No More Tax.”
The group erupted into chants of “First Amendment” and “Democracy” after being told that they would be collectively limited to 10 minutes of public comment, prompting MUMPO to bring in security. Individuals stood up and demanded to be heard, but Huntersville Commissioner and MUMPO Chairwoman Sarah McAuley said that no one would be able to speak to the board at that point.
Kurt Naas, founder of Widen I-77, the community group leading the movement against HOT lanes, told the Herald Weekly, “We were not surprised by last night's vote, but we were shocked by Sarah McAulay's blatant disregard for the people she is supposed to represent.”
The majority of the citizens left the meeting before hearing the presentations regarding the I-77 project.
Bill Coxe, Huntersville's transportation director, gave a presentation on HOT lanes and the proposed public-private partnership before the vote. He told the board the submitted public comments focused almost entirely on the tolling elements of the project.
“There is, as you have seen this evening, virtually universal distaste for the idea of tolling,” Coxe said.
However, Coxe gave the findings of a scientific public survey that asked citizens from Charlotte to the northern section of I-77, “If given a choice of getting the toll lanes now or having some additional enhancement at some undetermined time in the future, which would you prefer?”
The results of the survey showed that 56 percent of those surveyed said they would rather take the HOT lanes component now, instead of waiting for general purpose lanes to be installed, according to Coxe.
Through the use of computer modeling, Coxe gave an estimate of peak hour traffic congestion in the year 2035 along the I-77 corridor. He said the research completed by the Charlotte DOT shows that whether HOT lanes are introduced or just one general purpose lane is added in both directions, the congestion between the sections of I-77 between Cornelius and Mooresville will not change in 20 years.
During the three-hour peak period of traffic, travelers should expect to drive 35 miles per hour along the stretch between Exits 36 and 28. The biggest change in travel time came for the Charlotte stretch of I-77 where speeds would be expected to drop between 20-25 mph if general purpose lanes are installed instead of HOT lanes.
“What this tells us, if you add general purpose capacity, overtime growth in our region, assuming we continue to stay economically healthy, growth eats up that capacity and you’re right back where you started,” Coxe said. “The hot lanes continue to work.”
Coxe said the managers of the HOT lanes will be held to a guaranteed performance standard.
In the 55 mph segment of I-77, cars in the HOT lanes must be moving at a minimum of 45 mph. In the 65 mph segment, the HOT lanes must be moving at a minimum of 52 mph. If the speeds are not maintained, the public company that manages the lanes would be fined.
Coxe ended his presentation with the Technical Coordinating Committee’s caveats to MUMPO’s plans regarding I-77. MUMPO unanimously approved all the caveats.
TCC Recommended Caveats:
• MUMPO should acknowledge that under current NCDOT financial structure, approximately $40 million in project delays would need to occur to accomplish the project.
• MUMPO should acknowledge that this only allows the project to move further into procurement.
• TCC should develop additional I-77 North projects, including general purpose lanes north of Cornelius and evaluate them in the Long Range Transportation Plan update.
• Recommend a strategic study of all travel corridors (including I-77) from Charlotte to Statesviile begin as soon as possible.
• Recommend NCDOT continue its high level of coordination with MUMPO and local staff through procurement, implementation and operation.
• Recommend NCDOT and MUMPO convene a joint task force to coordinate this project with other area managed lanes projects.
• NCDOT should appoint a project manager to coordinate all activities associated with the project.
• No action should be taken by NCDOT or any other party to discourage informal (i.e. non pre-arranged) carpooling.