North Carolina DOT Expands I-77 Corridor
Combating Growth: North Carolina DOT Embarks on First Public-Private Partnership to Relive Congestion on I-77
The city of Charlotte and its surrounding areas are going to great lengths to help commuters avoid traffic and continue on their way. The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), in conjunction with I-77 Mobility Partners, is expanding the I-77 corridor with express lanes.
The city of Charlotte is experiencing tremendous growth. According to U.S. Census data, more than 42 people per day are moving to the city. This is not so surprising given that the city has become a major American financial center. Forbes noted that Charlotte is the second largest banking center in the country (New York City is first).
Due to this tremendous population growth, the roadways in the areas are experiencing greater traffic and need to be updated to accommodate the increase in drivers. In 2007, NCDOT partnered with both South Carolina's and Charlotte's departments of transportation (and other regional agencies). The purpose was to analyze the existing and planned highways and determine where express lanes could help reduce congestion. Based on the results of the study, the I-77 North corridor was deemed a high priority.
In 2011, NCDOT decided the I-77 express lanes project would be a public-private partnership. They determined that leveraging private funding would enable them to build and open the project sooner than with state funding. Ultimately, Cintra won the bid. They created I-77 Mobility Partners, a limited liability corporation, specifically for the I-77 Express Lanes project. With the signing of the deal, North Carolina had its first public-private partnership to design, build, finance, operate and maintain highway infrastructure.
The parameters of the project include:
- Adding a total of two high occupancy toll (HOT) express lanes, including conversion of the existing high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to HOT lanes, in each direction for 18 miles from uptown Charlotte to Cornelius
- Adding a HOT express lane for an additional 8 miles from Cornelius to Mooresville
- Resurfacing all lanes
- Adding 1 million square feet of noise walls
- Building or rebuilding 11 bridges
- Widening seven additional bridges
The Project Team
David Hannon, Chief Infrastructure Officer for I-77 Mobility Partners describes his role on the project as an overseer. "I oversee the design and construction and ensure it is most optimal for future customers, and I oversee maintenance operations." Hannon notes that I-77 Mobility partners subbed out both the design and construction of the I-77 express lanes.
The design and construction is being done by a joint venture of FA Southeast and English Construction. "We subbed out the work in order to transfer risk to others. There are contractual requirements for them to have the project completed on time or they will have to pay damages and compensation." The I-77 express lane project was begun in November of 2015 and is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2018. Hannon is confident the project will be completed on time.
Similar reasoning leaves Hannon confident that the budget of $647 million will also be met. "We aggressively bid out the project and have done a good job of managing potential risks," says Hannon. The contracts that I-77 signed allowed them to lock in costs and transfer risks to the contractors.
Managing Traffic Disruptions
In a project with a size and scope as large as I-77, there are bound to be challenges. While Hannon feels there have been no “true construction issues”, he says the sheer volume of volume of work has made planning challenging. Planning appropriately ensures the least amount of traffic disruption. However, even the best of planning cannot avoid disruption completely, particularly since there is a limited workspace available.
Informing the public of disruptions is one of the many tasks handled by Jean Leier, Director of Corporate Affairs for I-77 Mobility Partners. “Our goal is to keep the public informed and involved in the project during construction and in to operations,” Leier said. “Not only do we send frequent communications on lane closures and construction progress, we meet monthly with each municipality along the corridor to provide the latest information and answer questions.” They also meet with organizations, neighborhoods, and business groups to share information.
Another challenge is also related to the area where the work is taking place. The 26 miles of I-77 crosses over three other interstates and is an active traffic area. "We had to construct new complex structures, and to be able to do that we had to make sure the design and the work fit with what is already in the area," says Hannon.
The team has managed to do all this and even went beyond the original scope. They redesigned the Southern-most interchange, which Hannon says, "brought construction costs down and improved future connectivity." In addition, they added direct connector ramps from I-85, which provides additional connection to the two most highly used ramps at that interchange.
The additional lanes will add capacity and give commuters a choice. "Commuters are going to have congestion relief options. If they're running late, they don't have to worry about being stuck in a lane," says Hannon. The express lanes will offer more reliable travel times than the general purpose lanes. By setting speed standards, NCDOT is ensuring traffic in the express lanes will flow at speeds of at least 45 mph during peak travel times.
Traveling in the express lane will come at a cost as a toll will be charged. As part of the deal between NCDOT, the tolls collected will go to I-77 Mobility Partners. Hannon notes this arrangement goes for 50 years from when the last lanes are fully operational.
Drivers will have multiple opportunities to enter and exit express lanes in several locations. Each segment in the corridor will be tolled separately, and prior to the entry point of each segment, drivers will see signs that indicate the amount of the toll. Drivers who have three or move people in a vehicle and have a switchable transponder that indicates this can use the lanes for free. Emergency responders, public transit and motorcycles also use the lanes for free.
While construction on the I-77 express lanes continues, I-77 Mobility Partners is already actively working on maintaining the 26-mile stretch of road. As part of the contract with NCDOT, I-77 Mobility Partners assumed responsibility on October 1, 2017, for maintenance and operations started. "We have a dedicated crew working out there," says Leier. "They help with traffic control, fix potholes, trim trees, and more."
As Charlotte and its surrounding areas continue to grow, the traffic on the roadways is becoming more congested. The NCDOT recognized this issue and along with I-77 Mobility Partners is giving commuters options. With the addition of the I-77 express lanes, commuters will be able to zoom around the growing area and get to their destinations on time.
Photos courtesy of Sugar Creek Construction