A look at how much drivers on I-77 can expect to pay in toll rates

Driving the length of the 26-mile toll lanes being added on Interstate 77 between uptown and Mooresville will cost up to $6.95 during peak times, according to rates disclosed Thursday by private operator I-77 Mobility Partners. Those rates will be in effect for the first six months the toll lanes are open and, after that, the company will switch to dynamic pricing, with rates changing as often as every 5 minutes.

On Thursday evening at Huntersville United Methodist Church, representatives from I-77 Mobility Partners — a spinoff from Madrid-based global infrastructure firm Cintra — presented a 25-minute overview and then heard comments and questions from a small crowd made up of opponents and critics. Nine attendees spoke as part of the toll-rate meeting. Accusations flew during the public comment portion, including assertions that the private operator has been sloppy during the construction phase, that rates can and will go much higher, that the project will wind up in bankruptcy as has happened in other states, and so on.

State Rep. Chaz Beasley, a Mecklenburg Democrat whose district includes northern portions of the county, referred to previous concerns raised that round-trip rates could be in the range of $20. According to rates for the period after the six-month trial, round-trips could cost as much as $19.90, based on the I-77 Mobility Partners figures introduced Thursday.

“Ultimately, I think that everyone in this district and in this area just wants to have some clarity and wants to have transparency about what’s going on in this project,” Beasley said, addressing the three I-77 Mobility Partners representatives who attended the meeting and sat at a table in front of the room as speakers tore into the project. “When it comes to the pricing model itself, we know from the fine print that this is just the beginning, that we’re just starting out at around $19, that that number can go up over time.”

Beasley chided the private contractor for disclosing rates by segment without adding up the figures to give a fuller picture of what it will cost people in total to use the lanes. He went on to say round-trip costs of $25 to $30 are possible.

The I-77 Mobility Partners contingent included CEO Javier Tamargo. Afterwards, Tamargo told me, “The information we have received from the public is very interesting and welcome. There are a lot of strong feelings about the project. I don’t agree with most of those opinions, but I understand everyone has their own opinion.”

Questions and comments can be submitted online through Sept. 24. Under then-Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican and former Charlotte mayor, the state signed a contract with I-77 Mobility Partners in 2014 to expand the interstate between uptown and south Iredell County. The private contractor is responsible for financing, designing, building, operating and maintaining the $670 million project. (Additional entry and access points and other improvements increased the price tag by $20 million, Tamargo said Thursday; I-77 Mobility Partners is absorbing those expenses. All but $95 million of the cost is being funded privately, with the rest from state and federal government.)

More recently, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and his transportation secretary have said the contract is a bad one. Last month, the state transportation department publicly declared its intent to pursue an eventual end to the private contract, but offered no timeline. Other recommendations, which would have to be negotiated with I-77 Mobility Partners, include additional capacity over Lake Norman, a cap on toll rates and discounts for frequent users.

Rick Monroe of Cornelius, one of the speakers on Thursday, expressed a common sentiment, telling the I-77 Mobility Partners representatives, “We need details. How about all of the little hidden fees, how much does stuff get marked up, none of that’s been answered. ... You were given a right-of-way worth hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, you have been loaned hard-earned taxpayer money at a highly preferential rate and you’ve been promised tens of millions of dollars of state subsidies. You have been given a license to steal.”

Representatives from I-77 Mobility Partners said Thursday the toll lanes will open by the end of this year, though they also left open the possibility of some portions of the lanes not being completed until next year. If that occurs, drivers will pay discounted rates. The agreement with the state includes a 50-year exclusive operating agreement for I-77 Mobility Partners. The state will continue to own the road, but can’t add any capacity without paying financial penalties, a provision aimed at protecting I-77 Mobility Partners’ ability to generate toll revenue to recoup its investment.

All of the machinations are playing out as political and business opponents of the toll lanes continue to push for a buyout of the contract to make some or all of the additional lanes free for all drivers. Existing lanes are still free for all drivers. The toll lanes consist of two lanes on each side of I-77 from exit 11 to exit 28 and one lane per side from exit 28 to exit 36. The state contract requires a minimum speed of 45 in the toll lanes. On Thursday, the company said speeds will range from 48 to 56 miles per hour.

Rates are 35% lower for drivers using state turnpike authority-issued transponders. The difference in cost aligns with turnpike authority rates in the Triangle and at the 20-mile Monroe Expressway between Mecklenburg and Union counties opening later this year. Toll rates will be displayed a quarter-mile ahead of each of the paid segments along the interstate north and south. Displayed rates will be those for the lower transponder costs, not the higher bill-by-mail rates.

The state turnpike authority, not I-77 Mobility Partners, will handle all billing. Sticker transponders are free and work in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. Hard-case transponders cost $7.40 and cover all three states plus any other area that uses the E-ZPass system. 

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Written by Erik Spanberg, the Charlotte Business Journal. Article available at https://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/news/2018/09/14/a-look-at-how-much-drivers-on-i-77-can-expect-to.html