As North Carolina Prepares for New Tolls, Opponent Decries ‘Caste System’
Posted at 12:05 p.m. on Aug. 21, 2014
Tolling may soon become a routine method of paying for new highway construction even in traditional non-toll states, and drivers may just have to get used to it.
But some drivers are waging a battle to prevent tolling on a congested 26-mile stretch of Interstate 77 in North Carolina.
Construction is scheduled to begin next spring on a $655 million project in the Charlotte area in which North Carolina is partnering with the Spanish company Cintra to add a new toll lane and convert existing high-occupancy lanes to toll lanes or “managed lanes.”
It is the first public-private partnership in the Tar Heel state and the biggest project ever done by the state’s Department of Transportation.
The managed lanes will allow buses, motorcyclists and cars with three passengers or more to travel on them without paying tolls. For other drivers in the managed lanes, tolls will vary, with higher tolls during peak use.
The I-77 project will use electronic tolling with vehicle-mounted transponders and billing the owners of vehicles that don’t have the devices by photographing their license plates and mailing them a bill.
Drivers who don’t want to pay a toll can continue to use the general purpose, un-tolled lanes.
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jen Thompson said the deal with Cintra allows the project to be finished relatively quickly, by 2018.
If the state used traditional funding — relying on state and federal highway money — it would take up to 20 years to finish the project, she said.
The state DOT says in its fact sheet on the project that the capital costs for constructing managed lanes are about 10 percent higher than the costs for general purpose lanes “because of electronic systems, lane separations and signage specifically for them.”
Kurt Naas, one of the leaders of a grassroots group called Widen I-77, says, “We feel like it’s creating a caste system for infrastructure. Only those who are able to afford it or desperate enough will have access to good infrastructure. The rest of us will sit in congestion.”
His group wants the state to widen the existing stretch of highway without putting any tolls on it.
Naas contends that the project “doesn’t relieve congestion in the general purpose lanes, it ensures it, because the only time people are going to pay the tolls are when the general purposes lanes are congested.”
Naas, who owns a manufacturing and distribution business in Concord, N.C., argues that “if you’re going to manage these toll lanes for profit, you’re going to want as much congestion in the general purpose [un-tolled] lanes as you can get, so you can charge a higher toll. So you really have a divergence between what the private company wants and what’s in the public interest.”
He says the project “puts the taxpayers at risk both for subsidizing the toll revenues as well as a potential bailout on the bonds.”
The state has not yet said how high the tolls will be. They will be driven by the number of people who choose to use the toll lanes, but the state will require Cintra to hold public forums to explain how the tolls will be determined, Thompson said.
Cintra is operating dozens of similar projects around the world, and “they know an exorbitant toll will not attract anyone,” she said.