Lake Norman leaders discuss I-77 widening

Cornelius commissioner says adjusting causeway could benefit Mooresville

by Justin Vick

DAVIDSON – The Lake Norman Transportation Commission spent much of its Feb. 10 meeting discussing the bombshell state transportation engineer Barry Moose had dropped a week prior.

Moose told the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Technical Coordinating Committee that efforts to widen Interstate 77 to Exit 28 and add high-occupancy toll lanes, known as HOT lanes, could be accelerated if transportation officials transfer money from stalled state projects.

Bill Coxe, who chairs that committee, told the Lake Norman Transportation Commission that one such project involves a bridge at the Outer Banks for which about $750 million had been set aside to repair.

Under Moose’s scenario, stalled project money could get reallocated statewide under the equity formula, which typically nets the region about 14 percent, Coxe said.

“Barry has identified enough money where he believes he can four-lane I-77 all the way to Catawba Avenue,” Coxe told the Lake Norman Transportation Commission. “He said one of those lanes would be one of those HOT lanes in each direction.”

Davidson Town Manager Leamon Brice asked Coxe why transportation officials would need to spend any money converting high occupancy lanes to toll lanes, when they could just build four general-purpose lanes. After all, revenue from HOT lanes would no longer be needed to pay for future expansion.

Coxe explained that expanding I-77 to four lanes through Cornelius would push the price tag from $57 million to $100 million and may not be in the region’s best interest.

He pointed to a previous attempt to mitigate congestion when general-purpose lanes were added to I-77 going in both directions, only for the lanes to quickly fill up.

Coxe said HOT lanes present a better long-term value.

At a city council meeting Monday, Feb. 14, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said pushing for the HOT lanes sent a message to Raleigh about the area’s transportation needs.

“I think this is an important (step) from the standpoint of continuing to send a signal that we are a participant in the region and it’s a project of county importance and regional importance,” Foxx said.

Adding another general-purpose lane to I-77 could remove the incentive for drivers to use the HOT lane and possibly deter the area from getting projects like the Red Line commuter rail green-lighted, Coxe said.

In previous discussions, transportation leaders have said the toll could generate as much as $25 million that could be used to cover the cost of construction.

Leaders discuss causeway into Mooresville

Jim Bensman, serving as proxy for Cornelius Commissioner Chuck Travis, asked if transportation officials had considered expanding I-77 to three lanes within the causeway heading into Mooresville.

Otherwise, three- or four-lane traffic would constrict to two lanes through that stretch.

“Even three lanes to two lanes right now causes problems in Huntersville,” Bensman said. “No matter where it is on the planet, it’s going to cause problems whenever you lose a lane. It’s just a law of physics.”

Coxe replied that riding through there, he’s not sure he’d be comfortable adding a lane in each direction.

Coxe also cautioned that touching the causeway could lead to a full-blown environmental impact document that could take several years of planning.

Bensman said he would be supportive of a causeway project, even if it took two or three more years to evaluate the environmental impacts.

“It seems like it would be worth a conversation,” Bensman said. “As long as I have been involved with this, there has been this collective fear and worry … that they won’t let us do it. What if we actually went and talked to them?”

Coxe said adding the causeway to the project would require Moose calling his environmental contacts within the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Charlotte City Councilman David Howard wondered if such a project would be suited for Mobility Fund, a pot of money conceived last year by the governor that awards projects that are regionally significant, starting with the I-85 corridor project near Yadkin River in Davidson County.

Carroll Gray, executive director for the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, said the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization will discuss the issues related to the I-77 widening next month.

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