by Billy Ball
Last year, the Indy reported that North Carolina transportation leaders were moving on a controversial plan to construct high-occupancy toll lanes, better known as HOT lanes, for a congested portion of I-77 north of Charlotte. On Thursday, the N.C. Department of Transportation finalized that deal, signing off on a contract with Spanish-based transit company Cintra.
DOT agreed to a public-private partnership with the group to build and operate HOT lanes on about 26 miles of I-77 stretching from uptown Charlotte to the Lake Norman area. That stretch of roadway is known to be one of the most congested areas in the state.
HOT lanes allow drivers to choose whether they want to pay a toll to travel a guaranteed speed of 45 mph. The private company will set the toll rates, which fluctuate up or down depending on traffic. With the cash-strapped state facing about $45 billion in needed highway improvements between 2015 and 2020, both supporters and opponents say HOT lanes could be the future of congestion relief across the state, including in the Triangle.
“This project provides an innovative and comprehensive solution to existing and future congestion in this corridor,” said NCDOT Secretary Tony Tata in a statement. “Utilizing the public-private partnership concept is allowing us to improve nearly 26 miles of I-77 in just a few years, not in decades. This expansion will provide an option for reliable travel time while addressing long-term mobility concerns.”
The state will spend about $88 million on the project, with Cintra paying the remaining $655 million in exchange for toll revenues. Officials say the project will be complete within four years. N.C. House of Representatives Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican from Charlotte, was a major proponent.
Opponents, however, note HOT lanes have done little to ease congestion when implemented in other states such as Georgia. Citizen groups such as Widen I-77 have called for leaders to instead increase the number of general purpose lanes on the busy highway.
On Thursday, those HOT lane critics reaffirmed their opposition. “This project has been characterized by inconsistency, misrepresentation and a disregard for the taxpayer’s money,” said Widen I-77 spokesman Kurt Naas.