A decade from now, tooling around North Carolina’s two biggest metro areas promises to be a different experience as drivers opt to pay to use restricted-access roads or lanes — or settle for more congested paths. The state’s 10-year transportation plan mentions potential tolls on large sections of freeways in Charlotte and the Triangle, joining the state’s first toll road, the Triangle Expressway, which opened in southwest Wake County in 2011. “A lot of people still don’t realize it, but there’s a move afoot to toll a major section of Charlotte’s highways,” says David Hartgen, a former transportation-studies professor at UNC Charlotte who now has a consulting firm. Many toll options are under review and lack funding. But there’s plenty of support from business and political officials who favor user charges rather than increasing gas taxes or other fees.
The next toll is likely to be on Interstate 77 in northern Mecklenburg County, where the N.C. Department of Transportation formed a $655 million partnership with Spain’s Cintra SA to charge drivers opting for a “Lexus lane” that would be set apart from the regular highway. Rates will fluctuate based on congestion, with drivers likely to pay as much as $11 each way during peak times. In return for financing more than 80% of the project, Cintra will collect toll revenue under a 50-year contract. Widen I-77, a group of local residents, opposes the plan. They want the state to instead spend about $110 million to add general-purpose lanes to the most congested section. But Sen. Thom Tillis, the former N.C. House Speaker who lives near the project, and others support the DOT plan, and a lawsuit seeking to stop it was denied on March 5. The lanes could open as soon as 2018. Other Charlotte highways likely to have tolls include a new bypass around Monroe (held up by litigation), the eastern leg of U.S. 74 — better known as Independence Boulevard — and sections of the I-485 loop around the city, DOT spokesman Warren Cooksey says. A toll lane on I-77 between downtown Charlotte and the South Carolina border is also getting a look.
Just as much toll development is being considered for the Triangle, including several stretches of Interstate 40. Someday, drivers may pay a toll on a restricted lane for the 30 miles between Hillsborough, where interstates 85 and 40 intersect, and Raleigh’s Wade Avenue. With revenues topping projections, the Triangle Expressway gives toll proponents some cover after two agencies rated the road’s bonds as stable in recent months. Under Gov. Pat McCrory and his predecessor, Beverly Perdue, North Carolina’s highway planning relies more on data and less on political influence in picking which roads get built, Hartgen says. But the formula favors toll lanes, which rely less on state funds, and doesn’t analyze cost to riders, he says. (Ten bucks spent on a toll may be $10 less spent at a restaurant.) Opposition to tolls may be muted now, but Hartgen expects that will change. “As the system develops, I suspect people are going to get madder and madder.”