DEC 2, 2015

The Charlotte Observer

In Fort Worth, Texas, business is booming along the North Tarrant Express, where a recently completed $2.5 billion project added toll lanes to a 13.5-mile stretch of highway.

In fact, a real estate development expert at the University of North Texas recently suggested the corridor has the potential to become another Silicon Valley.

That’s why leaders of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce were “astounded to learn that businesses in our community would object to (toll) lanes” on Interstate 77, particularly the section through the Lake Norman area, Cornelius Mayor Chuck Travis and Davidson Mayor John Woods reported in a summary of a recent trip to Texas, where they got a first-hand look at highway projects, including toll lanes, there.

Drivers had experienced gridlock on the 13.5-mile stretch of Texas 121/183  for decades before the project added two toll lanes in each direction. Business leaders said the hope for future congestion relief helped fuel economic development, even during the disruptive four years of construction.

One key difference between the North Tarrant Express and I-77, however, is that the Fort Worth project added not only toll lanes, but also dual frontage roads running parallel to the highway. The frontage roads remove much of the local traffic from the NTE, which is the primary connector between downtown Fort Worth and the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

Tolls to use the managed lanes for the entire length of the NTE range from about $2 on weekends to $8 at rush hour on weekdays. The highway’s original lanes remain free of charge. That also will be the case on I-77.

During their visit Nov.19-20, the mayors also met with business and government leaders while checking out work by Cintra, the lead contractor in the N.C. Department of Transportation’s $655 million public-private partnership to widen the 26-mile section of I-77 from Charlotte to Mooresville.

Here at home, the Lake Norman Chamber has become a vocal and active opponent of the I-77 project which, like the North Tarrant Express, will add “managed” lanes whose tolls will vary based on the level of congestion. In both projects, Cintra is financing the bulk of the cost and will be repaid through tolls collected from drivers using the new lanes.

“The (Fort Worth) Chamber also predicted that large employers exploring (the Lake Norman) market would turn away if the region didn’t offer transportation reliability to meet travel-time expectations,” the mayors said in their written report. “They emphasized that they compete with the Charlotte region, and (the lack of a solution to congestion would) be a clear disadvantage to even retaining our existing large employers.”

Leaders from the Lake Norman Chamber insist that businesses will leave the area because the toll lanes won’t provide adequate relief to growing congestion on I-77.

The Lake Norman Chamber backs a plan by several state and local elected officials to request that the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization – the federally mandated panel of county and municipal representatives tasked with prioritizing projects funded through state and federal dollars – ask Gov. Pat McCrory to tear up N.C. DOT’s contract with Cintra. The governor has repeatedly refused to get involved in the I-77 debate and said the decision belongs to CRTPO, not himself.

Among the Texas business leaders the two north Mecklenburg mayors met with were senior executives from the Perot Companies, now run by Ross Perot Jr., son of the business tycoon and former presidential candidate. Travis and Woods noted that the Perot Companies encouraged the Texas DOT to include managed lanes on the Chisholm Trail Parkway, a 27.5-mile highway south of Fort Worth.

“(Texas) business leaders support the managed lanes concept, suggesting transportation reliability is a very important objective of their employers,” Woods said after the trip. “(And) civic leaders support the managed lanes, touting conservative principles of individual choice and private-sector risk (and) pointing to short-term pain and long-term gain in congestion reduction.”

Some critics of the I-77 project, including Lake Norman Chamber president Bill Russell, argue that Lake Norman area drivers consider I-77 to be a local road because there are few alternate, north-south routes, and that managed lanes are impractical for motorists simply driving from one exit to the next.

Both mayors noted their trip (funded out of their own pockets) and subsequent comments shouldn’t be interpreted as support for the I-77 project. However, Travis said, “I think we have several lessons learned from Texas that we need to apply.”

Those include allowing large trucks in the toll lanes, Travis added. As originally planned, heavy trucks would be prohibited from using the new I-77 toll lanes. DOT officials now say the project could be altered to construct the new lanes to standards that would accommodate trucks.

Travis also called for a study of the potential economic impact of adding toll lanes to I-77. In Texas, meanwhile, sales tax revenue has jumped more than one-third in the NTE corridor since the project was completed a little more than a year ago.

“Improvements from managed lanes have created long-term economic competitiveness for North Texas,” Travis and Woods concluded in their report.

The mayors said they didn’t mind paying for the visit themselves. “To my knowledge, no other local elected officials have made a trip to see these projects first-hand,” Travis said. “We are encouraging decision-makers around this topic to make the same trip.”

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