Toll concerns may not spread to south Meck

As state transportation leaders contemplate adding toll lanes across the Charlotte region to help fund the expansion of highways or cut down on congestion, opposition to the plan has formed in Cornelius – where the first of the toll lanes would likely go on Interstate 77 in place of the current high–occupancy, or carpool, lane.

Only time will tell if similar opposition grows in south Mecklenburg, where the North Carolina Department of Transportation has considered adding toll lanes on Interstate 485 between I-77 and Independence Boulevard, possibly as early as the next few years. Transportation experts say they haven’t heard many complaints about toll lanes in south Mecklenburg, and definitely not the kind of backlash seen from groups like Widen I-77 (www.wideni77.org), the Cornelius-area group that recently denounced the I-77 toll lane plan.

There’s at least one key reason for the current lack of opposition in south Mecklenburg, said Charlotte City Council member Warren Cooksey. “One, the toll lanes proposal for I-485 is still a drawing board speculation. It’s a longer-term, maybe-we’ll-do-this thing.”

The plan under discussion in south Mecklenburg includes adding one toll lane in each direction from I-77 to the Ballantyne area, then eventually extending the lanes all the way to Independence. The project would come after crews finish adding a general purpose lane in both directions between I-77 and Rea Road – a project that starts this year – where they are expected to construct an extra-large paved shoulder that later could be marked off as a toll lane. Air-quality standards prohibit the paved shoulder from becoming a general purpose lane.

The plan is much different in north Mecklenburg, where the high-occupancy lane that’s been part of I-77 for years would be changed into a toll lane – in essence, charging drivers for what they’ve been getting for free in hopes of funding future widening.

Currently, drivers just need to have two or more people in their vehicle to use the lane. If it becomes a toll lane, people would have to pay to use it, and transportation officials hope drivers would use it as a means to bypass congestion on the general purpose lanes of I-77 while the state collects money to pay for expanding the highway one day.

Louis Mitchell, the area’s project engineer for the state transportation department, said his group will continue working with area leaders and citizens to get feedback on the I-77 and I-485 toll plan. Toll lanes also could be added to I-77 south of uptown Charlotte, and on Interstate 85, in the distant future.

“The NCDOT will explore and use a collaborative approach to delivering transportation network improvements with the local stakeholders,” Mitchell said in an email. “As we evaluate revenue sources and projections in comparison to transportation needs, we will have to evaluate the utility of managed lanes. The local towns, cities and other government entities … are an essential voice and partner in this process. We will continue to navigate toward a suitable transportation solution, with the input and consensus of these stakeholders.”

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