Not far from Lake Norman, it’s rush hour on an August morning and North Carolina’s latest effort to speed millions to their daily destinations is having the opposite effect. Signs say 70 mph, but amid this 26-mile, $647 million construction project along Interstate 77 north of Charlotte, motionless motorists seethe as lumbering, dust-trailing earthmovers overtake and pass them.
These are toll lanes in the making, and barring a reversal, they’ll open in late 2018, carrying motorists who value time more than money. Another toll road, the 20-mile, $731 million Monroe Expressway in Union County southeast of Charlotte, is under construction too, and it won’t be the last — N.C. Secretary of Transportation James Trogdon III makes that clear.
“I’ve heard him say this, and I like the analogy, that tolls are one of the tools in our toolbox of how we can possibly finance our infrastructure,” says Michael Fox, a Greensboro lawyer who chairs
the N.C. Board of Transportation. “He’s reluctant to throw a tool out just because it might or might not work in a certain area.”
The toll tool, though, is politically perilous. Toll roads are not Gov. Roy Cooper’s “preferred option,” and if it had been up to him, he wouldn’t have signed the contract for the I-77 project, spokeswoman Noelle Talley says. She cites his recent order for an independent review as his immediate response.
It is arguably the state’s most unpopular road project, though a long-proposed and currently stalled effort to add tolls to finance an expansion of Interstate 95 through eastern North Carolina might run a close second. Halted twice by former Gov. Mike Easley in the early 2000s, proponents argue tolls would pay for a $4 billion-plus widening planned for 2026 and 2027 in Robeson, Cumberland, Harnett and Johnston counties. Opponents contend local users along the largely rural interstate would be unfairly penalized, and a DOT spokeswoman says there are no plans to toll any part of I-95.
The I-77 expansion is adding two express lanes both south- and northbound between Charlotte and Cornelius, plus one such lane each way from there north to Mooresville, about 10 miles. One reason for the backlash is that the toll lanes are being built under a 50-year public-private partnership with Interstate 77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Madrid, Spain-based Cintra S.A., a global developer of private infrastructure. N.C. DOT is paying $88 million with Cintra picking up the rest of the $655 million project.
Proponents say it would be years before construction funds are available otherwise. Though transportation funding is set to increase every year between now and 2021, DOT says the wish lists of metropolitan planning organizations are growing far faster. Critics say North Carolina will inherit the risks, but profits will accrue to the foreign company. Some speculate that round-trip tolls could be as high as $20 at peak travel times, though Mobility Partners has not disclosed pricing. The independent review, due this month, is looking at a number of ways to change the contract with Cintra.
Beyond such fights, however, is a larger glimpse of highway transportation in the state. It’s a troubled picture, authorities agree, and toll projects are almost certain to remain a factor.
Tar Heel motorists have demonstrated they’ll embrace them under certain circumstances. In Wake and Durham counties, the 18-mile Triangle Expressway that opened in 2011 is an example. The project has exceeded revenue and traffic projections, says Beau Memory, executive director of the N.C. Turnpike Authority. Created in 2002 to oversee toll roads, the authority originally was authorized by the N.C. General Assembly to handle up to nine projects. Lawmakers have since increased that number to 11, primarily around Charlotte and the Triangle.
Public-private partnerships are likely to be a part of the picture. P3 projects, as they are known, have many potential benefits. Companies can complete roads more quickly and more cheaply than governments can, proponents say. Such partnerships also can limit the amount of debt taken on by cities and states. But there is little hard evidence to suggest that they perform better over time than government-built projects.
No matter how they’re constructed, more toll roads are likely because of more efficient vehicles, North Carolina’s growth, changing demographics and a dearth of funding options, says Fox, the transportation board chairman. “The consensus of transportation experts and folks in the industry is that motor-fuel tax will be a declining source of revenue because fuel efficiency of vehicles is improving.” Nearly 40% of the state’s $4.7 billion transportation budget this year will come from fuel taxes. “You’re getting more mileage, which is good for the consumer and good for the environment, but bad for the system we use to finance our highways.”
Tolls have generally been unpopular in the wide-open spaces of the South, but urban locations increasingly attract newcomers from regions where they’re more accepted. There are other proposed funding methods to build roads, but they’re not necessarily more popular.
“One, very much in its infancy, is called vehicle miles traveled,” Fox says. “You essentially pay a tax based on how many miles you drive.” Objections? Vehicles must be equipped with tracking devices. “Some folks have privacy concerns, so there are hurdles with that.”
Other options include raising registration, license and other fees, which already bring in about 20%, or more than $900 million, of the state transportation budget. Fox and others say cities might also impose their own taxes for highways. Similar in principle, Charlotte residents in 1998 approved a half-cent sales tax for light rail.
Tolls as a hot political potato are unlikely to cool. Thom Tillis, from northern Mecklenburg, the hotbed of I-77 tolling opposition, was elected to the N.C. House of Representatives in 2011, became speaker, and jumped to the U.S. Senate in 2016. Tillis strongly supported the toll project, backed heavily by Charlotte politicians, contending that user fees will be increasingly necessary to pay for such infrastructure improvements.
Meanwhile, Memory and others stress that such projects begin with requests from local planning organizations and work their way up, rather than top down. Tillis used that argument successfully.
It’s the political point Gov. Pat McCrory used in defending the Cintra deal before he was defeated by Cooper in a tight race in which toll opponents say the I-77 project was a factor. Charlotte and Lake Norman initially wanted it, McCrory says. He is now, notes Bill Russell, president of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, the former governor.