Questions remain for Charlotte’s toll lane projects

The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to build express toll lanes on Interstate 485 and Independence Boulevard, starting in 2017.
The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to build express toll lanes on Interstate 485 and Independence Boulevard, starting in 2017.

The N.C. Department of Transportation has signed the final paperwork to add toll lanes on Interstate 77, but there are two other express-lane projects planned for Charlotte.

Those toll-lane projects – on Interstate 485 and U.S. 74 – are based on the same concept: Motorists can pay a toll in exchange for a guaranteed travel time between two points.

But the two projects are very different from the I-77 express-lane project, and there are still a number of unanswered questions about them.

For instance, it’s unclear what the travel time savings will be for motorists not using the toll lanes. And it’s not known whether the toll revenues will stay in the Charlotte area or will be sent to Raleigh, N.C. and distributed throughout the state.

The basics

The I-485 toll-lane project will add one toll lane in each direction from I-77 to U.S. 74. The $203 million project is scheduled to start in 2017 and could be open by the end of the decade.

North Carolina will use the unused shoulder recently built on the outerbelt between I-77 and Johnston Road and then widen the highway to U.S. 74. The project will add no new free lanes to the outerbelt.

The U.S. 74/Independence Boulevard project is also scheduled to start in 2017.

North Carolina will convert the existing busway on Independence into a reversible toll lane. That lane will run from Interstate 277 to Albemarle Road. For the 2-mile segment from Albemarle Road to Conference Drive, the state will have one toll lane in each direction.

Because most of the highway is already built, the U.S. 74 toll-lane project is only expected to cost $14 million.

How much will the tolls be?

As on the I-77 project, the cost of a toll depends on how many people want to use the express lane. The idea is to guarantee motorists a 45 mph trip.

But there is a difference between the south Charlotte toll-lane projects and the I-77 north project, which is being built by a private developer, I-77 Mobility Partners. The I-485 and U.S. 74 projects will be built and managed by the state.

Noncompete clause?

One of the most controversial parts of the I-77 Mobility Partners contract is a provision that makes it difficult for the DOT to add new free lanes to the highway for the life of the contract, which is 50 years.

If the DOT builds new lanes on the highway, they would likely have to pay financial compensation to the developer.

Some Lake Norman-area, N.C., residents and officials are worried that I-77 will remain extremely congested, even after the toll lanes are built.

Because the DOT will own and operate the I-485 and U.S. 74 toll lanes, there is no noncompete clause. The state would be free to add more lanes without having to pay a private developer.

Will there be time savings?

If you pay to use the toll lanes, you will almost certainly save time, but it’s unclear whether the toll lanes will help motorists in the free lanes.

Earlier this year, under pressure from local officials, the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization considered whether to use the unused shoulder on I-485 as a temporary carpool lane before it is converted to a toll lane.

The DOT conducted an analysis and said opening the carpool lane would only save the average motorist six seconds at rush hour. It didn’t conduct an analysis of how much time someone would save by using the carpool lane.

With the I-485 toll lane project, the state hasn’t yet the projected time savings for people in the free lanes.

Even though the highway was widened in December, there is still heavy congestion on the highway at rush hour. The new express lane may not do much to relieve that problem.