Were tolls all about buses?

June 15. ANALYSIS. By Dave Vieser. As the construction of the I-77 toll lanes continues, there’s been a great deal of speculation as to why state and Charlotte transportation officials seemed so anxious to push the project along. Reducing congestion was always the stated position, but there was a lot more to it, says Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett.

“Ned Curran, then-chairman of the NCDOT board, told the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization that they needed to continue to support the toll road project because the chances of there being a northern commuter rail line were becoming very unlikely.”

Indeed, after both CATS and the North Mecklenburg towns expressed more and more interest in a commuter rail line from Charlotte through Davidson, Norfolk Southern, which owned the right of way, let people know they had no interest in sharing it  with their scheduled freight trains.

“That being the case, Curran emphasized that the region needed to have a lane on I-77 that would give CATS buses or bus rapid transit the ability to have guaranteed travel times,” Puckett explained.

Curran, a top executive with Bissell, one of the region’s leading real estate companies, ​said it’s been clear all along that managed lanes will “allow those who use public transportation a more reliable and quicker route to their destination.” While quicker travel is important, “the element of travel time reliability is perhaps even more important and a unique advantage of managed lane concepts.”​

Puckett said the big, over-arching goal was to get people in the northern suburbs out of their cars and onto buses with the knowledge that they could get to work in a reasonable amount of time.

“That is why the toll project is set up to guarantee 45 mph travel times and why CINTRA must regulate the con- gestion on the toll lane, raising the toll to make sure that the toll lane doesn’t get so crowded that it would slow the buses down” Puckett added.

While town commissioners in Cornelius talk about increasing the commercial ratables—as opposed to residential—the vision on a regional scale is all about North Meck towns providing workers for Charlotte.

“Only one lane was needed to make a​ll that happen, but one lane wouldn’t have generated enough revenue, so the toll lane plan became a two-lane project and 24 miles long rather than the 13 miles they would have needed to get to the already widened part or I-77 around 485 in Charlotte,” Puckett said. The decisions were based on the assumption that the northern towns are where the workers for downtown Charlotte live and that communities such as Huntersville and Cornelius would remain bedroom communities.

Fast forward to today, and the contract with CINTRA has become a statewide concern, according to Puckett, a leader in the anti-toll battle, and former Lake Norman Chamber Chairman John Hettwer.

“After four years and about 15 trips to Raleigh, we have been able to ele- vate the toll lanes from a local issue to a statewide issue,” Hettwer said. “The negative economic impact this project could have was the factor which made the most impression to our rep- resentatives.”

Puckett said the negative consequences over the course of the 50-year Cintra contract are in excess of $10 billion.

He said the South Carolina Department of Transportation is well on its way to provide a dependable truck route from the Charleston port to points west and north, bypassing the Charlotte Airport Intermodal Termi- nal. Those efforts include dredging and expanding the Port of Charleston and spending $300 million on a spur to I-26.

Ultimately, it means job growth in South Carolina, not North Carolina.

Puckett said extensive delays on I-77 mean local routes are becoming “a black hole” in the trucking industry.

Mercator Advisors of Philadelphia is currently doing an analysis of the toll lane project for Gov. Cooper’s administration, which will include options available to the state. Those would include canceling the project, paying penalties; finishing the toll lanes and then buying it out from Cin- tra; making the toll lanes general purpose lanes; or permitting trucks to use the toll lanes. Another option, of course, would be to proceed with the contract as is.

Mercator’s findings are due by the end of this summer.



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