The following was submitted by William Rakatansky, former Cornelius Commissioner.
There’s been a lot of discussion about whether the proposed High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on Interstate 77 will have any meaningful effect on congestion. In order to bring some clarity to this issue, let’s look at toll lanes both in the short- and long-term.
Let’s assume the I-77 toll lanes get built and become operational in 2017, and between 2013 and 2017 traffic volume increase by 10 percent. Since I-77 presently carries around 80,000 vehicles a day, then another 10 percent usage will up this figure to about 90,000 vehicles per day.
Now let’s also assume that it will take about 10 years for the public to accept the toll lanes, and then they become a resounding success. How will the toll lane operator maintain the contractual minimum speed of 45mph? By increasing the price of the tolls as congestion grows. How high can the tolls go? No-one knows for sure since there is no stated limit on the cost of the tolls, but the real issue is that there is this tight balancing act that the toll lane operator must juggle: ENCOURAGE toll lane usage, but not allow the lanes to become congested. Therefore, once the toll lanes start their path towards congestion, what must the toll operator do? Raise tolls.
So in a successful toll lane operation, the toll lane operator will be DISCOURAGING usage to keep the speed at a minimum of 45 miles per hour. Where do the discouraged drivers go? Anywhere else that will allow them to avoid high tolls. As a result, one of the major options for these discouraged drivers will be using the “free” lanes, thus adding “insult to injury” to the congestion already existing in those lanes. This will then result in greater congestion for longer periods of time, all the while, normal congestion due to population growth will also be increasing. Once people get tired of the “free” lane congestion, they will be tempted to use the collateral, companion roads of Highway 21, State Route 115 and possibly Beatties Ford Road. This will have an aggregating effect on the smooth flow of traffic on these very limited roads, as they presently have only one lane of travel in each direction. This will then lead to congestion of these other roads into and out of Charlotte for the potential projected population for the North Mecklenburg / South Iredell region of over 250,000 people.
So the answer to the question of whether the toll lanes will increase congestion, is that in the “short term”, not necessarily. But in the “long term”, the answer is a resounding YES, congestion will increase for both the toll lanes and the “free” lanes. This is just common sense.
Another way of putting it is that the term often used to describe the toll lanes: “managed lanes” means that the toll lane operator will up the dial on the cost to discourage drivers out of the toll lane and into the General Purpose “free” lanes. Nothing is done to help congestion. It only helps the person desperate enough to pay the high fee to travel at 45 miles per hour or less.
The other piece of the equation is that the latest proposed contract with the toll lane operator has a clause stating that any additional lanes needing to be added to I-77 to alleviate congestion, must be toll lanes, otherwise the State (meaning the taxpayers) will be subject to a penalty or the possibility of the toll lane operator suing the State for lost revenues. The collateral roads, on the other hand, may be widened without penalty or the toll operator suing the State for lost revenue. But the chances of the collateral roads being widened while the toll lanes are congested are strictly dependent upon the MUMPO ranking of these roads, which is heavily weighted by Charlotte representative votes. And this entire scenario will keep in force for 50 years, unless the State (meaning the taxpayers) decides to buy back the additional lanes built by the operator, at a substantial profit to the operator, and loss to the State.
Therefore, any thinking person should have no choice but to oppose the toll lanes on I-77.