Project Overview and Purpose
The Charlotte region is growing. Its urban population has increased 135 percent in the past 25 years alone, making it the 38th largest urban area in the nation in 2015.
Population projections indicate that Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville will add approximately 125,000 people by 2040 – an increase of 86 percent over the present combined population of the four towns.
More people moving to the area means more vehicles on the roadway. In particular, traffic on I-77 between I-85 and Iredell County has jumped more than 20 percent in the past five years, creating a congested commute for drivers during peak travel times. Traffic forecasts show the congestion will only get worse if there are no improvements to the road.
The I-77 Express Lanes project will help alleviate the region's current and future congestion problems by creating new express lanes on 26 miles of I-77 from the Brookshire Freeway (Exit 11) in Mecklenburg County to N.C. 150 (Exit 36) in Iredell County.
What Will the Project Do?
The project will do two key things:
- Currently, I-77 has one high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane, commonly known as a carpool lane, in each direction within parts of the project’s boundaries. The project will convert those HOV lanes to express lanes.
- Crews will also build a second express lane alongside the converted HOV lane on both I-77 North and I-77 South.
When the project is complete, there will be two express lanes added in each direction on I-77 between uptown Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. Between Cornelius and Exit 36 in Mooresville, there will be one express lane added in each direction.
The existing general-purpose lanes will always remain free of charge. Crews will not add or take away any general-purpose lanes, but they will resurface them to preserve the pavement and provide motorists with a smoother ride.
Express Lanes: The Power to Choose
Express lanes are the key to improving mobility along the I-77 corridor. They offer drivers a choice: Pay a toll and use the express lanes to avoid travel delays or continue driving on the general-purpose lanes for free.
The power is entirely in the hands of motorists. They can individually determine how valuable their time is and decide if the time they will save is worth the cost of taking the express lanes.
Drivers who choose not to use the express lanes will also see a benefit. As other motorists opt to take the express lanes, congestion in the general-purpose lanes will lessen, making the commute more efficient for those relying on the free lanes, as well.
Motorcyclists, buses and carpoolers with three or more occupants (including the driver) may use the express lanes for free.
North Carolina isn’t the only state investing in express lanes as a way to alleviate traffic backups. California, Colorado, Texas, Virginia, Florida and Georgia are among those successfully using them in urban areas to make travel more efficient for all drivers.
How Traffic Will Flow
Along the 26-mile I-77 corridor, drivers will be able to enter and exit express lanes in several locations. This map provides a detailed look at those locations.
These points will give drivers multiple opportunities to decide if they want to take advantage of the time-saving benefits the express lanes offer. They will also help ensure motorists can easily reach their destinations from the express lanes. Each segment in the corridor will be tolled separately, and drivers will see signs prior to the entry point of each segment that indicate the amount of the toll.
Drivers can also count on the express lanes to offer more reliable travel times than the general-purpose lanes. By setting speed standards on the express lanes, NCDOT can ensure traffic will flow at speeds of at least 45 mph during peak travel times, while vehicles on the general-purpose lanes might be moving at a much slower pace.
Tolling will be electronic; there will be no toll booths stopping traffic. The North Carolina Turnpike Authority, not I-77 Mobility Partners, will handle billing drivers for tolls. A driver who uses the express lanes will pay the toll through one of three methods:
- A transponder account with the North Carolina Turnpike Authority
- An existing transponder account with EZ-Pass, PeachPass or SunPass
- A bill by mail (plus administrative costs) based upon a photograph of the license plate
CATS buses, identifiable carpools of three or more people, emergency vehicles and motorcyclists will not be charged tolls to travel in the express lanes.
NCDOT has worked with local and federal partners for several years to make the express lanes project a reality.
This timeline shows the extensive steps taken to help bring the region a solution to congestion on I-77:
- In 2007, NCDOT partnered with the South Carolina Department of Transportation, the Charlotte Department of Transportation and other regional agencies for the Fast Lanes study, which analyzed existing and planned highways in 10 counties and identified where express lanes could help reduce congestion. The study identified the I-77 North corridor as a high priority.
- A feasibility study was conducted in 2009 to consider converting existing HOV lanes on I-77 to express lanes and extending the converted lanes to Catawba Avenue (Exit 28) in Cornelius.
- In 2010, the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO) adopted a resolution to develop express lanes projects on I-77, I-485 and U.S. 74.
- In 2011, NCDOT determined it would approach the project as a public-private partnership to leverage private funding to build and open the project sooner than with state funding.
- In July 2011, CRTPO amended its 2035 Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP), which included a project (I-5405) to create one express lane in each direction on I-77.
- In 2012, NCDOT began exploring the use of express lanes and variable tolling to address long-term congestion management in the corridor, while minimizing public contributions and utilizing private capital.
- In June 2012, CRTPO amended its 2035 LRTP and 2012-2018 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) to include converting the existing HOV lanes to express lanes, adding a second express lane between I-85 (Exit 13) and I-485 (Exit 19), and building two new express lanes between I-485 and Catawba Avenue.
- In May 2013, CRTPO again amended its 2035 LRTP and its 2012-2018 TIP to include two projects that would provide express lanes along I-77 from I-277 (Brookshire Freeway) in Mecklenburg County to N.C. 150 (Exit 36) in Iredell County. These projects would be delivered by NCDOT with a public-private partnership at a cost to the state not to exceed $170 million.
- Also in 2013, four potential bidders were shortlisted and participated in more than 70 meetings with NCDOT. These one-on-one meetings helped produce several drafts of the final contract documents. Each of the bidders conducted its own analysis to determine if it could meet contract requirements, while ensuring the long-term contract would generate enough revenue to offset the initial investment.
- Some potential bidders requested additional state and federal funds beyond that number and/or requested that some contract requirements be relaxed. NCDOT determined the public contribution was reasonable and would not be increased.
- Bids were due by March 31, 2014. The proposals were subjected to roughly 200 pass/fail criteria.
- Cintra was announced as the apparent best value proposer on April 11, 2014, with a total project investment of $647 million, of which only $95 million is contributed by NCDOT and federal funds.
- On June 26, 2014, NCDOT and I-77 Mobility Partners, a limited liability corporation created by Cintra specifically for the I-77 Express Lanes project, signed a Comprehensive Agreement for the delivery of the I-77 Express Lanes project – establishing North Carolina's first public-private partnership – to design, build, finance, operate and maintain highway infrastructure.
- NCDOT, together with I-77 Mobility Partners, announced on May 20, 2015, that they achieved financial close on the I-77 Express Lanes project. Financial close meant that both I-77 Mobility Partners and NCDOT completed financing requirements necessary for the project to move forward. That process includes months of review by the Local Government Commission (comprised of state treasurer, state auditor, secretary of state and secretary of revenue) and the Federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Credit Council. NCDOT received approval from both and secured funding at historically low interest rates.
- On Aug. 19, 2015, the CRTPO approved its 10-year Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program (MTIP), which includes the project to add express lanes to the I-77 North corridor.
- On Jan. 20, 2016, the CRTPO reaffirmed its strategy to use express lanes as part of a regional transportation vision.
View the NCDOT documents associated with the project since its inception on Connect NCDOT, NCDOT's business partner resources site.
I-77 Mobility Partners and NCDOT's Public-Private Partnership
NCDOT's partnership with I-77 Mobility Partners significantly speeds up the schedule to add new express lanes on I-77. Without it, North Carolina would not have sufficient funds to complete the project for at least 20 years. The public-private partnership enables NCDOT to improve travel time on I-77 by 2018 and leverage new funds through I-77 Mobility Partners' investment. In addition, North Carolina taxpayers are protected from the risks of using toll revenue to finance the project.
As the public-private partnership has evolved, NCDOT and I-77 Mobility Partners have engaged the community, as well as state and local leaders, to ensure this project is the most effective long-term solution for I-77. Engagement has included hosting public hearings, workshops and meetings with town mayors, managers, planning organizations, businesses and local legislators.
NCDOT has also provided financial documents for the project to several agencies for careful review, including the Department of State Treasurer and the Local Government Commission, which includes the state treasurer, state auditor, secretary of state and secretary of revenue.
As required by law, NCDOT submitted reports to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee and the Chairs of the Transportation Oversight committees.
NCDOT is not relaxing protection of this investment and will still own the road. While I-77 Mobility Partners will manage design, construction, finance and operation of the project, NCDOT will ensure standards set in the contract are met. Should I-77 Mobility Partners default on the contract, the state will get the project for 50 to 60 cents on the dollar and all future toll revenues. If revenues are dramatically less than project estimates, the state could contribute up to $75 million over the 50-year contract term. This still does not exceed the $170 million public contribution previously estimated.
NCDOT, I-77 Mobility Partners and the general contractor continue to engage with the public and elected officials if there are questions or concerns about the project.
Design and construction are expected to take 3.5 years, with the project open to traffic in late 2018. Additional public meetings will be scheduled to discuss the project's toll rates and operations.
- Add more lanes along the I-77 corridor to help ease congestion
- Ensure the project integrates seamlessly with other projects along the corridor
- Use variable pricing for long-term congestion management
- Minimize the public’s contribution and financial burden of building the project
- Use private capital to allow for innovative financing approaches (public-private partnership)
- Establish operating speed standards on the express lanes during morning and afternoon peak periods
- Achieve an average speed of 45 mph on the express lanes
- Decreased fuel consumption and added time savings for drivers
- Increased incentive for motorists to carpool and take advantage of transit options
- Creation of reliable travel times on the express lanes, especially during peak hours; this is a mandatory service over the life of the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners
- Revenue generation to help pay for critical congestion relief along I-77. The public-private partnership enables NCDOT to address this immediate need and complete the project within 3.5 years instead of the estimated 20 years it would take to secure enough state funding to move forward.
Louis Mitchell, P.E.
Division 10 Engineer
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716 W. Main St.
Albemarle, NC 28001
Resources for Local Property Owners
In many cases, it is inevitable that a certain amount of private property must be acquired. The displacement of homes and businesses is minimized to the extent practicable. The following brochures will answer questions about this process.