Sunday, July 6, 2014

Reprise - I77 Expansion: An Alternate Plan

In light of recent developments on the I77 project as well as the likely demise of the Red Line commuter rail project (unless the State hands over permanent control of a chunk of the NCRR to Norfolk Southern), it seems like a good time to reprise a transportation alternative for the Lake Norman region first mentioned in these pages a year and a half ago. Proponents of the HOT lanes project have often falsely proclaimed that those opposed to HOT lanes are philosophically opposed to government action  and have proposed no viable alternatives.  In truth, opponents are just opposed to bad ideas.  With Commissioners slated to meet with the NCDOT at Monday's Cornelius Town Board meeting to get answers on the HOT Lanes contract, it may be valuable to keep in mind alternate possible scenarios to meet our transportation needs.

I-77 Expansion: An Alternate Plan
(originally published February 6, 2013)
The State position on widening I-77 boils down to this.  HOT Lanes via a Public Private Partnership (P3) is the only plan that works.  There is no funding to do it any other way - especially with general purpose lanes. 

That's their story and they are sticking to it.
What has not been explained clearly to the public is what exactly has been worked through before coming to this decision.  Clearly, there could be other ideas that could work.  Yes, there may be trade-offs, but there certainly could be an alternative plan that would relieve the worst congestion, meet improved mass transit capabilities, meet criteria that would ostensibly improve air quality, and likely qualify for the various funding pots dedicated to managed lanes - all without locking the State into a 50 year toll project.  
Let's look at one possible scenario. What if the State...
  • broke the project into phases to make the costs more manageable. 
  • got creative on maximizing usage of the available capacity.
  • accessed all possible funding mechanisms.
Here's how this could work:
Phase 1: Now
  • Extend the existing HOV lanes up to Exit 36.
  • Allow limited use of the HOV lane to Hybrid an/or ILEV vehicles for a fee.
  • Implement a coordinated carpool/SLUG program to encourage more use of the HOV lane
  • Enhance the Express Bus service from Exit 36 to Charlotte.
Phase 2: 25-30 Year Plan
  • Expand 77 again with a third general purpose lane north of Exit 23 to Exit 30 by building a new HOV lane and converting the current HOV lane to general purpose.  
  • Widen any overpasses as needed at that time.
How to pay for it?
  • Since many of the existing pools of money are restricted to "managed lanes" the expansion of the single HOV lane in Phase 1 should qualify.  Converting the HOV lane in Phase 2 to a GP lane would/should not be an invalidation of the agreement around the original funding for managed lane in Phase 1 as long as the State made the Phase 2 lane HOV.  There would still be the same HOV capacity.
  • Charge a $100 per year fee for special plates to any Hybrid/ILEV vehicle that wanted unlimited access to the HOV lane.  This type of fee is done in places like Virginia and Florida as examples.  Yes $100/yr would be much higher than in those states, but it would certainly be less than paying a toll every day for high users of the proposed HOT lanes in the current plan.  The state could manage the number of plates issued to ensure the capacity of the HOV lane is not overloaded.  However, maximizing the use of this lane would free capacity on the GP lanes and make all lanes flow more freely.
  • Reprioritize Mecklenburg 1/2 cent transit tax money for the Red Line to the HOV lane.  "high-occupancy vehicle facilities" are authorized valid expenditures as part of the bill allowing the transit tax passed in 1998.  This is a valid pool of money that has never even been mentioned in the HOT lane discussion.  It's a sacred cow we can no longer afford.
  • Pro: The State says there is no money for widening I-77 with general purpose lanes for decades. This plan gives the State that time while allowing for the relief of the immediate traffic congestion in the Lake Norman area.
  • Pro: Same number of total lanes at end of Phase 2.
  • Pro: The immediate costs would be significantly less.
  • Pro: There would be all of the transit and carpooling enhancements of the HOT plan.
  • Pro: No locking in the State to a 50 year contract via a P3.
  • Pro: No tolls, but still a revenue stream from special plates users to partially fund future expansion.
  • Pro: More flexibility in future expansion.  If Phase 2 warrants it at that point in time, the lane built in future decades could also be a manage HOV lane instead of  a GP lane.  (Not preferable, but an option nonetheless.)
  • Pro: Quicker construction in Phase 1
  • Con: Could just move the current bottleneck down to Charlotte.
  • Con: Does not address Charlotte's issues around I-277.
  • Con: There is no guarantee that Phase 2 money is available decades from now.
  • Con:  It does not guarantee a travel time under the absolute worst conditions like HOT.
  • Con: Two construction projects over time.
So the question is this.  If a plan like the one outlined here is workable, do the Pros outweigh the Cons and should the cost of addressing those Cons be paid only by Lake Norman commuters via the proposed tolls of the State's HOT Lane plan?

What do we get instead of answers this question?  We get municipal officials meeting behind closed doors with consultants this past Monday to see presentations on why the Sate P3 HOT plan is the best option. 

See HOT Lanes: Municipalities Exert Influence with NCDOT on Monday?

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