Is the Current HOT Lane Plan Even Legal?

According to the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), it might not be, and they’ve put the NCDOT on notice.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the federal government requires an Environmental Assessment (EA) to be performed whenever a proposed project is expected to have a significant impact on planned land use, growth, travel patterns, or air or noise quality.

However, the current HOT lane proposal attempts to shortcut this requirement by a “categorical exclusion.”  As the name implies, the Feds recognize there are certain categories of development which should not require an EA like bike paths, landscaping, and noise barriers.

Seeking a categorical exclusion puts HOT lane supporters in an untenable position: either the proposed HOT lanes should be put through a EA, or the HOT lanes are anticipated to be about as effective as a bike lane.  In a memo to the NCDOT this summer, the SELC “recommended” the former.

Unfortunately, the same environmental policy also forbids “segmentation”, i.e. breaking up large projects into smaller ones for the purposes of obfuscating the overall environmental impact.  So if we want to widen a stretch of road from exit 23 to exit 28 but plan to do more in the future, we’ll need to do an EA from downtown Charlotte all the way to Mooresville.  Unbelievable.

You can download the SELC memo here:

7-20-12 I-77 CE to Midkiff

Private Companies to Receive a Minimum of $500K Just for Submitting HOT Lane Proposal

In a memo dated March 2, 2012, the NCDOT agreed to pay each company bidding on the HOT lanes $500,000 if they submit a “responsive proposal”, and $1,000,000 if the NCDOT agrees to the contract and then cancels it.

This is a kick in the face to North Carolina taxpayers for so many reasons.  First, in my line of business I get paid for performing work, not creating proposals.  Second, the entire HOT lane concept was supposed to leverage private money, yet we’re using taxpayer dollars just for the proposal.  Third, this amount totals $2,000,000.  We are trying to close a $20M gap and NCDOT gives 10% of that away before we’ve even started.

You can download the document here:

RFQ Questions and Responses.   The offending paragraph is question 15, page 5.

Sacrifices Made to the HOT Lane Monster

As any I-77 commuter knows, the problems with I-77 start around exit 23, where four lanes cram into two.  Exits 23, 25 and 28 add approximately 11,000 vehicles per day.  So the first phase in any proposed solution should focus on adding a lane from exit 23 to exit 28.

That’s only five miles of road, and no private company is going to be interested in building such a short HOT lane.  So to make the project palatable, the Technical Coordinating Committee (TCC) of MUMPO, chaired by Bill Coxe, had to sweeten the pot, or more appropriately, feed the monster.  How best to do this?

First, the TCC evaluated four scenarios involving vehicle occupancy (restrictions) and number of lanes (capacity).  The private company is going to want the highest HOT lane capacity with the highest restrictions on carpoolers. As your blogger predicted, that’s the scenario presently considered: two HOT lanes in either direction, with an HOV+3 restriction.

Second, they extended the project.  The current proposal- at a whopping $500M- now stretches from Charlotte to Mooresville.

Third, they lardered it up with all kinds of other goodies: widening existing lanes through Charlotte, re-working the Brookshire interchange and converting the existing HOV lane to a HOT lane.

The last one makes absolutely no sense. Where there are HOV lanes, traffic already flows freely.  No one will pay to drive that five mile stretch of HOT lane.  But the private company will expect revenues from that corridor.  How best to accomplish this?

Another prediction: northbound drivers will be forced to access the HOV/HOT lane at a point far south, around Sunset Rd (exit 16).  Southbound drivers will not be allowed to exit until south of WT Harris (exit 18).  That way, commuters will be forced to pay for miles that would otherwise be free.

Remember, you read it here first.

Air Quality an Excuse for HOT Lanes?

Air quality is one of the reasons local transportation officials have given for not being able to widen I-77 with general purpose lanes.  Mecklenburg County is in a Federal “Non-Attainment Zone”, which basically means we don’t meet federal air quality standards often enough.

As a result, federal law requires our local planning organization (Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MUMPO) to have a congestion management process in place before we can add any capacity to federal roads.

Does MUMPO have such a process? Of course not. It is supposed to be in place by April 2013. Ergo, no process, no GP lanes, so they tell us.

So why can we still build HOT lanes?

Because the HOT lanes do not, in the feds eyes, qualify as adding capacity! (That should tell you something about what a poor choice HOT lanes are for I-77.)

Yet, one can’t help but wonder if this requirement is a red herring.  Why is it that we can add GP lanes to I-485 through Ballantyne but not Lake Norman?

Further, how is it that getting 20,000 vehicles per day moving again bad for air quality?  Doesn’t make sense.

There’s an odor to this.  Stay tuned as we try to get an answer straight from the feds as opposed to the HOT lane advocates.

No money to widen I-77? Talk to Huntersville.

Two weeks ago, Huntersville Transportation Planner Bill Coxe proclaimed loudly and publicly that the only way I-77 would be widened is with HOT lanes.  In fact, he was willing to bet $10,000 of his own money on it.

When I met with Bill last month, he estimated the cost of adding a lane in either direction up to exit 28 was about $50M.  Right now, the Feds have committed $29M, but with strings, the biggest one being we have to find a way to come up with the remaining $21M.

That’s what the toll lanes are supposed to do.. because, as we’ve been told, there’s no money otherwise.

Yet last night the citizens of Huntersville voted overwhelmingly to invest $17.8M of their own money in their own roads.  In fact, Huntersville passed three bond issues, the other two being for parks and public facilities.

One way to start the first phase of widening is the three Lake Norman towns floating $7M apiece.  I’ll bet it would pass in Huntersville…