But we in the Lake Norman area face our own version of the streetcar boondoggle: high-occupancy toll lanes (HOT lanes) on I-77. Current construction estimates are $60-$100 million plus a toll payable to a private, unnamed third party. Yet, we could add a free, general purpose (GP) lane for approximately one-tenth of that by upgrading a shoulder for general traffic use.
I say "approximately" because no government entity has ever looked into this. Two years ago, Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO), the governing body, refused to authorize $200,000 for a feasibility study and instead embraced the HOT lane concept. Similarly the Lake Norman Transportation Commission (LNTC) championed HOT lanes with a unanimous vote in 2010.
Yet every reason put forth for HOT lanes (and against a shoulder upgrade) defies common sense. The four major ones are easily refuted:
• Reason 1: There isn't enough money. Presently $50 billion in highway projects are competing for $11 billion of available funding. That may sound like long odds, but consider the state of I-77. This stretch of interstate through Lake Norman is the only one in Mecklenburg County that is four lanes (everywhere else is at least six); it is the most congested four-lane in the state; it is located in one of the fastest growing regions of the state, and there has not been a single improvement in north-south connectivity since it was built in 1978.
Given this, shouldn't widening I-77 be in the top 20 percent of highway projects? In addition, completion of the I-485 loop is coming in at $130 million under budget. Couldn't we catch a few of those crumbs? Clearly there are funds. What's lacking are priorities, political will ... and common sense.
• Reason 2: Using the shoulder would impede emergency vehicles. Two answers to this. First, folks in Virginia, Illinois, Washington, D.C. and California have apparently solved this because they allow shoulder riding today. Second, the road has two shoulders. Upgrade one for traffic and keep the other for emergency access.
• Reason 3: HOT lanes will reduce congestion. This defies fiscal logic. HOT lanes actually require congestion. Think about it: If traffic is moving freely motorists will use the general purpose lanes. Only when the highway clogs will motorists pay a toll to avoid congestion. The rest of the time, though, the HOT lanes will be empty. Thus, general purpose lanes must be congested for the HOT lane financial model to work. Doesn't anybody get that?
• Reason 4: If you use the additional lane, you should be willing to pay for it. By this logic, every road should be a toll road. After all, why should you pay taxes to build roads you do not use? Similarly, only parents with children in public schools should pay for public education, and you should only pay the fire department if your house is burning. This is, of course, ridiculous. We all benefit from sound infrastructure, a literate society and the availability of emergency services. This congestion is caused by too few lanes in the first place, and could be solved by an effective prioritization process (see Reason 1), not double taxation.
Sometime this year NCDOT is set to award a contract and HOT lane construction is scheduled to begin in 2014. Perhaps the clock is already striking midnight, but I wonder ... are we really going to spend $100 million on a $5 million problem? Wouldn't now be a good time for an outbreak of common sense like they just had in Charlotte?
Thomas Paine, we could use you again!
— Kurt Naas, Cornelius