RALEIGH -- A leading Republican lawmaker – and a senior transportation department official – said Thursday that work on new Interstate 77 toll lanes could start next year.
Jim Trogdon, the transportation department’s chief operating officer, said officials hope to open bids in August with construction starting in 2014.
And Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, who co-chairs the House Transportation Committee, said lawmakers have come to see toll lanes as “the least bad answer” to congestion on the busy interstate. Backups that extend for miles are common.
Their comments came a day after the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization – despite protests from critics – voted unanimously to amend the agency’s transportation plans to include the $550 million project, which would build toll lanes on the heavily traveled interstate from Charlotte to Mooresville.
Crews would add two toll lanes – or HOT (“High-occupancy toll”) lanes – on north- and southbound I-77 between Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One toll lane would continue each way from Exit 28 to Exit 36 (N.C. 150) in Mooresville. Toll rates would vary depending on congestion, but toll amounts have not yet been set.
Though the General Assembly could stop the project by reversing its 2012 approval, that’s unlikely according to Brawley and other Republicans in the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
“Based on the information before me, if we’re going to get any widening of I-77 in the foreseeable future, it’s with HOT lanes,” said Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican. “The HOT lane concept, while it is not perfect, you can’t let great be the enemy of the good.”
Jeter’s House district is bordered by the interstate. The district represented by GOP Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius spans it.
Tarte calls toll lanes “the least onerous of the alternatives” with which to pay for the widening. Better, he says, than higher fuel taxes or taxing motorists on the actual miles they drive.
“We’ve got to figure out how to pay for it,” he said. “And current methods aren’t going to get it done. We can’t catch up. We’re getting further behind.”
Jordan Shaw, a spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis, said while the speaker doesn’t favor putting tolls on existing highway lanes, he’s open to tolling new lanes.
Public meetings about the toll roads have drawn many upset citizens, including at Wednesday’s MUMPO meeting. Rep. Robert Brawley, a Mooresville Republican, has joined those protesting toll lanes. He says people shouldn’t be required to pay twice for roads they’re already paying for with taxes. He has said he’s gathering support among legislators to reverse the General Assembly’s 2012 vote in favor of tolls.
But Robert Brawley’s stock with colleagues took a sharp fall this week.
On Wednesday he publicly aired a list of grievances with Tillis, even turning in his gavel as co-chair of the influential Finance Committee. One fellow Republican Thursday described Robert Brawley as “radioactive” to other members.
The legislature is expected to pass Gov. Pat McCrory’s plan that changes the way future transportation projects are funded. This week the House passed a bill – now in the Senate – that would essentially prevent officials from collecting tolls on existing highway lanes.
“We have taken action already that virtually ensures that all existing lanes in this state are going to stay that way,” Jeter said.
Tarte said keeping the interstate as it is “is not an option.”
“Long-term,” he said, “it would have a devastating impact on economic development if we keep it the way it is.”