Many residents have to repeat the same action daily — commuting to and from Charlotte during peak traffic hours — but they don’t really expect different results. If top-ranking state transportation officials have their way, though, things could be different sooner than anyone expected.
North Carolina Department of Transportation Chief Operating Officer James Trogdon on Tuesday told Lake Norman municipal leaders that the time has come to think differently about decades-old approaches to funding highway improvements, then on Wednesday was scheduled to pitch members of the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO) on a concept to expand the width of I-77 beyond even current plans, and to start preliminary work as early as next December.
The Citizen was the only media outlet present when Trogdon and other NCDOT officials met with the mayors and town managers of Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville Tuesday afternoon at Huntersville Town Hall. Trogdon briefed them on the presentation scheduled for Wednesday night’s meeting of MUMPO in Charlotte.
Using a combination of new technology and the growing trend of public/private partnerships (also known as “P3”) — which includes private investment in highway improvements in exchange for revenue-generating opportunities (tolls, operation agreements, development rights, etc.) — Trogdon and NCDOT are proposing throwing out the rule book and using I-77 as a model for P3 projects throughout the region and, where applicable, across the state.
“If we don’t do something different, we’ll get the same results,” Trogdon said Tuesday. “We do believe this is a wonderful opportunity for this project, but we are also looking at it as an opportunity to expand public/private partnerships in the region and looking at it as a process we can look at to address congestion in the region and not just a single project.”
In a state steeped in antiquated highway funding methodology, that’s just crazy talk.
The P3 concept of funding and construction of public infrastructure isn’t new, but it is new to North Carolina, which has been reticent to change how it funds roads and highways. P3 leverages what Trogdon referred to as OPM (other people’s money) to accelerate the design and construction of projects by years, if not decades. It effectively bypasses the textbook methodology of creating long-range and short-range priority lists, and then placing projects in the pipeline where they languish while waiting for scheduled funding to become available. With billions of dollars worth of projects on paper far outpacing available tax dollars to pay for them, funding is always inadequate to meet not only future need, but current demands as well.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Trogdon said there are several national and international P3 firms that have examined the entire scope of need along I-77 between the Brookshire Freeway downtown and Exit 36 in Mooresville. On the books, those are three separate projects, and under P3, they could be built in multiple phases. Even the scope of each of those phases is subject to further scrutiny, depending upon multiple factors.
Those factors include further traffic analysis, the ultimate level of interest expressed by private firms, revenue potential from tolls, availability of new tolling technology, the pace of environmental reports and the overall appetite for wholesale interstate renovation in the affected communities.
One thing is certain: Trogdon wouldn’t be bringing his pitch to MUMPO if there weren’t qualified private entities already seriously interested.
“We have met with several private firms, many of them big P3 companies, and none have said it’s a bad project and all of them are excited,” Trogdon said at Tuesday’s meeting. “How to move forward with P3 that brings a lot of innovation, that’s the positive side. The negative, from my standpoint, is that we have to move aggressively to have contractors on board to start final design-build on the project by the end of next year. It’s probably the most aggressive schedule we have tried to do to date, and if you all will help us through that, that will determine the success of this project; how rapidly we can collect information and gain consensus and move forward.”
That consensus would require agreement among the three north Mecklenburg towns, as well as Mooresville, on what the scope of the project through the Lake Norman region could be. Resolutions of support go a long way toward appealing to P3 companies as well as to federal highway transportation officials, who must sign off on the project. Friction, Trogdon said, is a project killer at the federal level.
Between I-85 to the south and Exit 28 to the north, the project could include expanding both directions of I-77 to four lanes, reserving two as general purpose lanes and two as highoccupancy toll (HOT) lanes, ideally utilizing electronic dynamic tolling technology that would vary the cost of using the lanes based on time of day, traffic conditions and other factors. The value of using the lanes would vary on a supply-and-demand basis. Another tolling option for the HOT lanes is variable toll, which would follow more of a rigid schedule — higher cost during peak hours than off-peak hours, for example.
South of I-85, per prior agreement, all travel lanes of I-77 would have to be widened from 11 feet to the standard 12 feet as part of any improvement north of I-85. That was a concession made when I-77 was widened to Exit 18, a project that added an HOV lane south into the downtown area, resulting in narrower-than-normal lanes. Other improvements for that part of the interstate are planned as well.
Also, any discussion of widening the interstate north of Exit 28 to Mooresville has been regarded as taboo, mostly because that would require adding width to the dual causeways over Lake Norman. Local transportation officials have been reluctant to enter into that discussion because of the perceived difficulty of gaining the approval of state and federal environmental authorities.
That didn’t appear to be the case on Tuesday, as NCDOT Division 10 Engineer Barry Moose indicated that, while it won’t be easy, all pertinent studies could be completed in time to let the contract in December 2012.
It’s important to point out that there is no preconceived plan for what form the widening of I-77 will take, or for that matter in what order phases will be completed — assuming it proceeds in phases at all. Like the free market economy, Trogdon indicated market forces will in part drive the pace.
Among those market forces may be the form of the P3 relationship. At the very least, it would likely be design-build-operate-maintain, meaning the winning bidder would finance and oversee the construction, then operate and eventually profit from the tolling until the required return-oninvestment is met. Trogdon said long-term “ownership” of the toll lanes by the private sector is unlikely, because the state would prefer to use toll revenues to help fund other regional road improvements.
“And it may not need to be the right configuration of lanes for the next 40 years,” said Trogdon. “It may be to meet the needs of the next 15 years and then, as we reach capacity, the next 15 years beyond that.”
Trogdon pointed to a similar concept in Miami, where I-595 employs a combination of general purpose and toll lanes. In peak traffic hours, the desired average speed on the general purpose lanes there is 40 miles per hour and in the HOT lanes 55-plus, with dynamic pricing employed as the factor to achieve both of those objectives.
HOT lanes on I-77 have been discussed for more than a year now — either converting the existing HOV lane to a HOT lane, adding an additional general purpose lane plus one HOT lane, or going four lanes with two HOT lanes — but until now they have been largely philosophical in nature.
Trogdon’s Wednesday push at MUMPO is a sign that the state is ready to move forward on I-77, and the full weight of the NCDOT is behind it. That’s still shocking to some local officials, who recall when funding for widening I-77 didn’t show up on the Long Range Transportation Improvement Plan until the year 2030, and when it was ranked by Charlotte-centric MUMPO in the 70s and 80s on a list of projects of which only the top 10 or so are addressed each year.
“We recognize that this region is growing, and it will continue to grow,” Trogdon said. The full-court press to address I-77 sooner rather than later was largely put on by Moose, who has made the interstate something of a personal priority. Part of that effort has been getting MUMPO, largely controlled by Charlotte, which has nearly the majority of votes on the body by itself, to accept the toll lane methodology.
“We’ve already gotten past the most critical hurdle with MUMPO, and that was buying into the HOT lane concept,” Moose said Tuesday. “Now it’s just a matter of magnitude.”
And it’s a matter of galvanizing all the affected jurisdictions. The mayors and town managers present Tuesday suggested working resolutions of support either through the Lake Norman Transportation Commission to the member towns, or directly with each of their respective town boards, or both.
The NCDOT’s objective is to have a delivery model of the project determined by December of this year and, if its P3, a preferred bidder selected by October 2012, a contract let by the end of next year and construction of at least the first phase, assuming it is phased, completed in two to three years after that.
Trogdon said time is of the essence.
“Right now, in this economy, for everything we do going forward we get good prices and that helps the industries we support who are staving for work,” he said. “It helps everyone.”
Anticipating local residents’ thoughts about how well received news of widening I-77 this decade, Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte suggested the project would be a monument of sorts to the NCDOT officials ushering the P3 concept forward.
“If we can get this started next December,” Tarte told Trogdon, “you will have to pick out the spots where we can put the 35-foot statues of all of you on the interstate.”
Given the landmark nature of the proposal, that’s not as crazy as it sounds.