Not far from Lake Norman, it's rush hour on an August morning and North Carolina's latest effort to speed millions to their daily destinations is having the opposite effect. Signs say 70 mph, but amid this 26-mile, $647 million construction project along Interstate 77 north of Charlotte, motionless motorists seethe as lumbering, dust-trailing earthmovers overtake and pass them.
These are toll lanes in the making, and barring a reversal, they'll open in late 2018, carrying motorists who value time more than money. Another toll road, the 20-mile, $731 million Monroe Expressway in Union County southeast of Charlotte, is under construction too, and it won't be the last--N.C. Secretary of Transportation James Trogdon III makes that clear.
"I've heard him say this, and I like the analogy, that tolls are one of the tools in our toolbox of how we can possibly finance our infrastructure," says Michael Fox, a Greensboro lawyer who chairs the N.C. Board of Transportation. "He's reluctant to throw a tool out just because it might or might not work in a certain area."
The toll tool, though, is politically perilous. Toll roads are not Gov. Roy Cooper's "preferred option," and if it had been up to him, he wouldn't have signed the contract for the 1-77 project, spokeswoman Noelle Talley says. She cites his recent order for an independent review as his immediate response.
It is arguably the state's most unpopular road project, though a long-proposed and currently stalled effort to add tolls to finance an expansion of Interstate 95 through eastern North Carolina might run a close second. Halted twice by former Gov. Mike Easley in the early 2000s, proponents argue tolls would pay for a $4 billion-plus widening planned for 2026 and 2027 in Robeson, Cumberland, Harnett and Johnston counties. Opponents contend local users along the largely rural interstate would be unfairly penalized, and a DOT spokeswoman says there are no plans to toll any part of 1-95.
The I-77 expansion is adding two express lanes both south- and northbound between Charlotte and Cornelius, plus one such lane each way from there north to Mooresville, about 10 miles. One reason for the backlash is that the toll lanes are being built under a 50-year public-private partnership with Interstate 77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Madrid, Spain-based Cintra S.A., a global developer of private infrastructure. N.C. DOT is paying $88 million with Cintra picking up the rest of the $655 million project.