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Wednesday, 27 February 2013 18:10

Trogdon: all I-77 options have been considered

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HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- James Trogdon understands why some Lake Norman-area residents are objecting to the concept of toll lanes to be financed, built, operated and maintained by a private partnership on I-77. But the chief operating officer of the North Carolina Department of Transportation said Wednesday that if local residents have any hope of widening I-77 anytime in the next 20 years, and likely far beyond that, that's likely the only way it will happen.

"When you ask somebody if they would rather have a toll road or a free road, of course they would say they would rather have a free road," Trogdon told the Citizen in an exclusive interview prior to Wednesday afternoon's public workshop at Huntersville Town Hall. "When you ask them if they would rather have a toll road and additional capacity and reliable travel times that they can depend on, or have no additional capacity at all, they start to understand why it needs to be an option to consider."

Trogdon was in Huntersville on Wednesday, along with several NCDOT officials, to meet with local residents and business leaders about the project to widen I-77 between Exit 36 in Mooresville and I-85 in Charlotte and make additional bridge and connectivity improvements using high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes — one in each direction north of Cornelius and two in each direction south — while maintaining the existing general purpose lanes, or free lanes, in both directions.

Estimated at some $550 million, the project would combine three separate I-77 improvement projects into one to make it attractive for private consortiums to undertake and to take a holistic rather than piecemeal approach to improving the roadway, which will include lane widening on I-77 south of I-85, plus new connections to the Brookshire Freeway (I-277).

The reason for enlisting private investment and toll lanes is simple, Trogdon said.

Money.

In summary, Trogdon said if the state were to cobble together all the federal funding available to the state for highways with all of the state's bridge replacement funding, its loop funding, it's (non-interstate) U.S. highway funding and its interstate highway maintenance funds as well as new capacity funds, it would still require 40 years of revenues to address the anticipated demand of the next 30 years statewide. That's $28 billion, "And that's obviously not a viable option," he said.

In reality, Trogdon said it would take 132 years worth of anticipated interstate highway funding to meet that 30-year demand — even longer factoring inflation. So, he pointed to a 2007 to 2010 "fast lanes" study by the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO), which identified several corridors in the Charlotte area that would be viable candidates for new toll roads or added toll lanes. Among those emerging from the pack, I-77 north of downtown Charlotte.

That enabled I-77 to move up from its 93rd ranking on MUMPO's Long-Range Transportation Improvement Plan to the top 10, but only if so-called managed lanes — and as it has evolved, HOT lanes — were incorporated as part of the plan. If the project is determined as fiscally viable, the state has pledged up to $170 million toward the project — depending upon how much the winner of four potential bidders wants to use of that amount — in what Trogdon described as buying $3 worth of highway improvement per $1 of state investment. The rest of the cost would be covered and, if exceeded — following a reasonable profit margin to the private vendor —returned to state coffers, by variable tolls that would fluctuate based on up-to-the-minute congestion.

Those tolls, Trogdon told the Citizen, average 10 cents to 15 cents per mile where toll lanes are used nationally. Some state officials have suggested that, typically, the highest toll price during peak travel times could be around 31 cents per mile. Under the I-77 proposal, no vehicle with three or more occupants would be required to pay a toll.

A local group led by Cornelius resident Kurt Naas has raised several objections to the proposal — which had previously been approved in concept by all the affected municipalities as well as MUMPO — suggesting that the state hasn't fully vetted all other options for funding general purpose lanes instead.

Cornelius Commissioner Chuck Travis, the town's representative on MUMPO, said not only would I-77 still be ranked near 100th on the region's 2030 highway plan, but as the regional planning panel incorporates Iredell County as a result of the 2010 Census, will fall even lower, perhaps even out of the top 200 based on the criteria currently being developed to devise the 2040 plan.

"All projects, an estimated 250-plus, submitted by municipalities will be entered into a 'funnel' that will prioritize rankings of projects including the method of funding and then the highest ranking projects will enter another funnel that will finalize the ultimate rank of projects based on environmental and natural resource impacts," said Travis. "Without the HOT lane funding option, I seriously doubt I-77 improvements will make it to the second funnel based on the lack of viable funding options.  About 35 to 40 projects will make it through both funnels."

Prior to Wednesday afternoon's information session, Trogdon channeled Yogi Berra, saying, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

That fork, he told the audience, is clear and present. All options, he told the Citizen, have been considered and managed lanes with private funding are the only viable possibility for near-term, and even long-term, widening of the interstate.

"Every citizen wants to explore every option, and we don't dismiss that," Trogdon told the Citizen. "That is why the Fast Lanes study was started by the MPO because they knew there has to be a better way we can deal with the financial reality of the situation we face not only here, but across the state."

Trogdon said NCDOT doesn't dismiss the needs of local commuters in the overall equation, but he added that the nation's Interstate Highway System is a vital tool for local, regional and national strategic logistics.

"The interstate system is the backbone of our state and the nerve center of our nation, but because it runs through communities, it is part of each community as well," Trogdon said. "Part of the challenge is how do we balance all that, but that's why we have MPO's and the state to make sure we don't hurt our national and state competitiveness and end up with a disconnected network. If every community independently made the ultimate decisions about the interstate, you wouldn't have an interstate system."

The NCDOT is currently working with four consortiums to receive bids for the project. Additional public meetings will be scheduled in the coming weeks and months. If the HOT lanes project moves forward, a vendor will be selected this coming fall.

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