CORNELIUS – Members of the I-77 Local Advisory Group made references to pigs, skunks and porcupines but not the largest creatures blocking their path.

At their only meeting where “how,” “how long” and “how much” were not part of the discussion, most members of the group endorsed the concept of replacing one of the two planned tolled, or managed, lanes on the interstate with a general-purpose lane throughout the 26-mile corridor where the interstate’s Express Lanes project is currently under construction.

The group held its seventh meeting on May 10 at Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce headquarters. After a summary of 10 options for altering terms of the Express Lanes contract, followed by a listing of additional ideas group members proposed at earlier meetings, each advisory group representative had the chance to share their vision of the project with North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon.

Trogdon, who attended most group meetings along with several other North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and North Carolina Turnpike Authority (NCTA) representatives, will now assume responsibility for reviewing the group's recommendations. At the conclusion of the meeting, Trogdon said he and his staff would analyze the proposals and, working under the guidelines of “existing law, see what we can do to respond.”

The “existing law” Trogdon referenced includes terms of the NCDOT contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, the company building the $647 million Mooresville-to-Charlotte project scheduled to open by the end of the year. Mobility Partners has assumed the bulk of the financial responsibility for the design, construction and operation of the interstate project in exchange for the authority to collect tolls on the managed lanes – which will run parallel to existing I-77 general-purpose lanes – for 50 years.

Terms of the contract, and the potential permitting delays and financial ramifications triggered by any significant changes in the agreement or the operational nature of the finished product, were primary topics of the first six meetings for the advisory group, which includes representatives from the counties, towns and chambers of commerce in the corridor where new lanes are being built.

Trogdon's task will be to evaluate the group recommendations while taking into consideration the logistical and financial factors explained and analyzed at previous meetings. He expects to have a recommendation to present sometime in July.

Individual suggestions

At the May 10 session, after a quick review of previous discussions, Phil Schwab with the RS&H consulting firm highlighted three ideas many group members had endorsed. Those proposals are: using hardened I-77 shoulders as travel lanes during peak traffic periods; adding a third general-purpose lane instead of a managed lane in the section of I-77 between Exits 36 in Mooresville and Exit 28 in Cornelius (including the causeways across Lake Norman); and replacing one of the managed lanes in the current plan with a general-purpose lane throughout the corridor.

With the exception of Charlotte Chamber of Commerce representative Ned Curran and City of Charlotte representative Greg Phipps (sitting in for fellow Charlotte City Council member Carlenia Ivory), advisory group members, in one way or another, supported the replacement lane concept.

Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners (MBOCC) District 1 representative Jim Puckett, describing the express lanes as a “pig of a project,” spoke first. Puckett said he would prefer to have nothing but new general-purpose lanes on I-77 “from I-40 to the state line” but said he'd accept three general-purpose lanes and one express lane in the corridor. Puckett added he would like to see the state assume ownership of the lanes and have the NCTA use toll revenue to pay the debt associated with that ownership.

Other group members added tweaks and suggestions but voiced support for the basic concepts in Puckett's remarks.

Lake Norman Chamber representative John Hettwer said the “Three and One” plan should allow for the elimination of some of the planned express lane ingress/egress points, which could eventually provide more space for a general-purpose lane.
And Iredell County representative Jeff McNeely, who has routinely shared analogies to express his opposition to the Express Lanes project, added another to outline his reluctant acceptance of the “Three and One” idea.

“It's sort of like a skunk having sex with a porcupine,” McNeely said. “It's not really good for anybody, but it's better than nothing.”

Hurdles remain

But the elephants in the room, even though they were not acknowledged at the meeting, remain scheduling uncertainties and financial burdens associated with substantial changes. Puckett said waiting a few years for a new arrangement would be better than accepting the current terms. And MBOCC at-large member Pat Cotham suggested the financial implications would not be insurmountable. But all those factors will be part of Trogdon's analysis of the group's recommendations.

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