CORNELIUS – The incorporation of toll lanes onto Interstate 77 once again had emotions rising during the June 16 town board meeting, thanks to an e-mail blast sent by Cornelius Commissioner David Gilroy.
Prior to the meeting, Gilroy sent a letter to supporters about how the I-77 tolls “has all the potential in the world to be catastrophic for the majority of Cornelius citizens.”
In April, the N.C. Department of Transportation announced that the Spanish-based company Cintra Infrastructures, S.A., was the apparent successful bidder for a public-private-partnership to work with F.A. Southeast, W.C. English and the design firm Louis Berger Group, to improve traffic flow of 26 miles of I-77 from Exit 36 in Mooresville to Exit 11 in Charlotte through the use of toll lanes. The toll lanes would not replace the general-purpose lanes, which will still be available for use free of charge, but will offer an alternative for commuters.
In the press release announcing Cintra, NCDOT stated that the estimated project cost for the HOT lanes are $655 million with Cintra investing much of it in return for toll revenue. NCDOT will also provide $88 million for the project, which has an estimated completion date of 2018.
Details about the project have been under wraps, with prices for driving in the lanes only being referred to as “higher during peak periods when demand is greater.”
Gilroy’s e-mail against the project came on the heels of 129 pages of documents outlining some of the alleged logistics that were released by the NCDOT thanks to a TV station’s Freedom of Information Act request. The report references data from 2012-13.
Many of Gilroy’s points came from a post by Kurt Naas, who has been vocal against the toll lanes through his group Widen I-77. Among them was the idea that tolls could potentially cost $9 one way into Charlotte and $12 out, totaling $21 round trip, if drivers used them in their entirety for their commute during peak hours.
Gilroy also said the $88 million in taxpayer funds would have paid for the two general purpose lanes needed to ease traffic flow from Exit 23 to Exit 28 without the need for tolls. There were also claims that the travel times would actually be worse going from 1 hour and 21 minutes roundtrip from Mooresville to Charlotte in 2015 to 2 hours and 21 minutes by 2035.
After stating wealthy residents may be fine with the fees, Gilroy wrote in his e-mail, “I believe, however, that the I-77 HOT Lanes will lock the vast majority of ordinary citizens in the Lake Norman region into a terrible choice between adding a new major expense to their family budget or suffering through decades of congestion in the free lanes far worse than even what we have today.”
During the Cornelius meeting, residents spoke out against the tolls and those cost projections, but Mayor Chuck Travis said they didn't know if the data was current.
“It sounds like we are proving them guilty before giving them the chance to actually address it," he said, later adding, "If the facts are as bad as what this paper says, then we do have some issues. But to date, I don't know if this is valid or not."
Travis, who has been a proponent for the toll lanes, requested more information from NCDOT before making judgments.
Already, resident Anthony Grisanti called the toll lane project “ransom for future residents not born yet” and said it would lead to U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis’ defeat. He also raised concern about the ease of entry and exit from the HOT lanes, which could cause accidents.
Another resident, Chris Dossin, questioned why a Spanish company was in charge and called the toll lanes "exploiting people's emotions" and that he didn't “see what value it could possibly bring to anyone in this area.”
Staff said they would try to coordinate a meeting with an NCDOT representative to get more information.