Op-Ed: 10 things you don’t know about toll lanes coming to I-485

Op-Ed: 10 things you don’t know about toll lanes coming to I-485
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(Rob Watson is the founder of the group Open Our Lane, which was created in January 2015 to advocate for the opening of the unused lane on I-485 for general purpose use)

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Charlotte area who doesn’t know about the toll lanes under construction on I-77. But many have been unaware of the plans for toll lanes on I-485, as well as Independence and I-77 south of Charlotte.

These plans have been in place for years, even before a 9-mile stretch of paved road on I-485 became littered with orange and white barrels and road closed signs. So here are 10 reasons you should care about the toll lanes coming to south Charlotte:

(1) Building toll lanes is expensive.

NCDOT has listed this project at a cost of $202.9 million. That cost is sizable no matter how you look at it, but it is even more outrageous when you look at what the region will get for that cost.

My opening stanza may have reminded you that 9 miles of this 17 mile project have already been built. That was part of NCDOT’s Phase 1 which included a general purpose lane for 9 miles from I-77 to Rea Road and an extra paved lane on that same stretch that is to be used for the toll lanes.

Phase 1 cost $83.3 million. Phase 2 will only include 8 miles to pave for the toll lanes and only 2 miles of an additional general purpose lane, from Rea Road to Providence Road.

So let me do the math for you, it cost us taxpayers $83.3 million for 36 miles of paved road (a general purpose lane and a toll lane, times two, for both sides of the highway), yet it will cost us $202.9 million for the remaining 20 miles of paved road.

I77 toll lane phases

Courtesy of Mariel Carr

Meanwhile, NCDOT has stated on multiple occasions that they have not yet conducted an analysis to determine the estimated revenue the toll lanes will bring in. I was told that such an analysis would be done during the construction but not to worry because the toll lane revenue is only designed to cover the maintenance of the toll lanes not the cost of construction. In other words, that extra $120 million will never be recouped.

(2) But I thought the lane was already built, why can’t we use it?

This was the reason I started Open Our Lane. For nearly a year, orange and white barrels and road closed signs spread out across the 9 extra miles of what NCDOT told me was a “deep shoulder.” Despite the euphemisms government loves to use, we commuters were constantly reminded by these barrels that we had paid for a road but weren’t allowed to use it. Their only solution was to take away the barrels and signs, but keep the deep shoulder.


The reason we can’t use it is as bureaucratic as it gets. Federal law says that if a lane was free to drivers at any point, it can’t be tolled. So if NCDOT wants to toll this lane in the future, it must keep it closed until the entire toll lane project is complete (expected in 2019 or 2020). No common sense exceptions are allowed in the world of government, so that’s right, 5 years of unnecessary traffic delays.

Meanwhile, NCDOT happily bragged that they saved $15 million by building it early, but somehow they couldn’t manage to pull $1 million out of that savings to open it in 2015 when given the opportunity. At that steep extra cost, the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization voted against opening it as an HOV lane until the project was complete.

(3) Excuse me, I just paid how much?

This really isn’t a joke. There is no limit on how much NCDOT can charge for using these toll lanes. It’s called demand-based pricing. So when there is high demand (i.e. heavy traffic), the toll lanes get more expensive in order to ensure the minimum speed of 45 mph is met.

So, either the lanes will be ineffective with no riders and no revenue, or they will be very expensive. In August, drivers in Atlanta saw a new maximum when they had to pay $14 for a single trip along their 16-mile toll lane stretch. But that’s nothing, with snow arriving over the last few days, I-495 in northern Virginia cost drivers up to $30 for a single trip! A new project coming to Virginia could run as much as $75 / day!

Sure, that’s about the same cost as a family trip to the movies, to use the analogy an NCDOT representative used to explain why it wasn’t expensive, but don’t be fooled. For commuters, this is an everyday problem. $30 each way every day would run you over $14,000 a year!

(4) At least more people will carpool now, right?


via the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials

The toll lanes aren’t getting built to reduce congestion. So, why, you might ask, are they being built?

A stated primary reason for the project is to promote carpooling. If you pay for a carpooling transponder and have at least three people in your car, you can ride in the toll lanes for free. But just how often do people carpool? And has the advent of HOV and toll lanes increased carpooling?

A national survey using census data shows that carpooling in the United States has, in fact, declined by more than half since the 1980s. In the 2010 census, 9.7% of commuters said they carpool compared to 19.7% in 1980. The decades in between show that there is a clear declining trend even as HOV lanes became popular in the 90s, followed soon thereafter by HOT lanes. It is not working.

(5) The toll lane project will fail

Toll lanes have failed repeatedly around the country with huge taxpayer losses, from the Corona Crawl in Orange County, California to the Pocahontas Parkway in Virginia. More well-known was the $3.8 billion Indiana toll road that declared bankruptcy – a project run by the same Spanish company building the tolls on I-77 north of Charlotte, Cintra. Another Cintra project in San Antonio filed for chapter 11 in March 2016. In fact, both Florida and Texas have put forward legislation to start undoing their states’ toll lanes because they don’t work.

Which leads me to the next reason:

(6) NCDOT will not operate the toll lanes for long.

NCDOT says they will operate the toll lanes on I-485, not Cintra. However, last year, the then-secretary of the NCDOT told city leaders that he would expect the tolls on I-77 south of Charlotte to involve a private company as well, with a general assumption it would be Cintra, especially since they have a right-of-first refusal clause with the I-77 North contract.

So if Cintra operates the tolls on 36 miles of I-77, why would NCDOT operate the tolls on I-485 or Independence? Why not stick with the same third party so drivers don’t need multiple transponders and the state doesn’t have the hassle of managing toll lanes and all their physical maintenance?

There are plenty of reasons to avoid Cintra, from corruption charges in Spain to toll road failures in the US and Australia and bankruptcies in Indiana and Texas. These facts have been highlighted for years in the drive to cancel the contract on I-77 north. Yet this message has fallen on deaf ears at NCDOT.

(7) Where did all these new bridges come from?

NCDOT’s materials show that I-485 will have three new “direct connectors,” which is a bridge from an adjoining road leading drivers directly into the toll lane, rather than requiring them to merge into the lanes through the main highway.

Where will we fit these flyovers? Since the toll lanes are being built in the median, these flyover ramps must come into the middle of the highway. Where does NCDOT plan to fit additional lanes for these merging ramps needed on each side of the road?

Direct connectors also explain the higher cost for toll lanes as two such bridges on the I-77 north project are estimated to cost $77 million. The only purpose of these bridges and ramps is to make it easier to use the toll lanes, which won’t make enough revenue to justify their existence.

While Charlotte would love to have a new way to name something Sharon or Queens, these connectors are unnecessary.

(8) Our taxes built another lane but only added 6% more road?

If a road has two lanes and a third is added, mathematics tells us that the road now has 50% more capacity. But math is not the specialty of toll lane designers. Especially when such toll lanes must maintain a minimum speed as the I-485 toll lanes will (NCDOT’s stated purpose is for the lanes to provide “reliable trip time on I-485”).

Studies of other projects in the country show that since toll lanes require drivers to pay to use them, the actual usage is significantly less than general purpose lanes, at just 6%. Sure, they may be used during heavy congestion (excluding those who can’t afford $30 a day) but outside of those periods, they are rarely used.

So it looks like our tax dollars at work here will add 50% more road space, but for every 100 drivers only 6 will be in the toll lanes.

(9) Tomorrow’s problem on I-485, merging accidents.

After Phase 1, which added a general purpose lane, I-485 no longer has as many merging challenges. Even during peak driving hours, there are just a few places where a high number of cars are merging at once such as when the lanes drop from three to two near the Rea Road exit.

However, when the toll lanes are in place, merging will become a challenge once again. At every exit. Along the entire stretch of the road. Why? Since the toll lanes will be on the inside, any toll driver who wants to exit the highway, will have to merge back into general traffic and shimmy across all lanes to get to their exit. Even worse, this will only be available in certain places due to barriers to enter and exit the toll lanes. As the toll lane is just one lane, this will create bottleneck issues at each exit point as well as unsafe conditions given the difference in toll versus general lane speeds. NCDOT has stated publicly that they plan to include merge lanes into their plans, but again, where are they going to put them?

(10) I-77 North ain’t got nothing on I-77 South!

For years, people in south Charlotte didn’t realize the importance of the disaster of a toll lane project north of town. I was as guilty as the next guy with my NIMBY attitude. The plan for tolls on I-485 woke me up and Open Our Lane joined the fight.

But along the way, we all learned something. The long term plan was not just about I-77 north or even I-485, but all of the Charlotte region. NCDOT wants to enclose our city and force us to pay to get around. To do so, tolls will be added to I-77 from the South Carolina border to uptown. Anyone who rides that road knows the traffic there has become a nightmare and we know there is little to no space to add more road.

Which is why that 10 mile stretch of road is estimated to cost more than twice as much as the 26 mile stretch of road north of town at a whopping $1.4 billion of yours and my tax dollars.

While NCDOT hasn’t bothered to perform economic analyses on these toll lane projects, two private analyses have been conducted on the I-77 north project and show the cost to the region will be up to $40 billion of lost business and property value reductions.

Wake up Charlotteans, it’s in our backyard now!

Want to make a difference? Attend one of NCDOT’s two public hearings on the I-485 toll lane project. The first will be held January 17 at Pleasant Plains Baptist Church in Matthews (open house from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and formal presentation at 7 p.m.). The second will be held January 19 at the South Charlotte Banquet Center (open house from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and formal presentation at 7 p.m.).

Cover image by Charlie Cowins via FlickrCreative Commons

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