The N.C. Department of Transportation says it will move forward with a private developer to build Interstate 77 toll lanes, despite concerns from local officials over fine print inserted into a contract that could hinder future expansions of the highway.
Cornelius commissioners Monday night unanimously passed a resolution asking the state to delay for 90 days finalizing a toll lane contract, saying they were unaware that the agreement specifically excludes a planned widening of I-77 at Lake Norman.
Transportation planners and officials in Huntersville, Mooresville and Charlotte have said they didn’t know about the details of a noncompete clause in the contract.
“It would have been more transparent to tell people, especially with their concerns,” said Charlotte City Council member Vi Lyles, who is the city’s voting member on a regional transportation planning board. “I want (the DOT) to be as open as possible about it.”
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Lyles said she supports the idea of the DOT building toll lanes as a way to relieve congestion. But she said she didn’t know about the details of the noncompete clause.
Noncompete clauses in toll lane projects are controversial but not unique to the Charlotte project.
In the I-77 project, the developer and the DOT agreed to specifically mention a planned widening of the highway between Exits 28 and 36. The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, of which Lyles is a member, had recently voted to insert the widening into its 25-year transportation plan.
The noncompete clause means that the DOT can’t add new free lanes to I-77 unless it compensates I-77 Mobility Partners, the developer.
The state can build new express toll lanes on I-77, but I-77 Mobility Partners would have the exclusive right to manage them. The contract doesn’t say whether the developer would be required to contribute any money to a second round of toll-lane construction.
The contract lasts 50 years.
The Cornelius resolution states that the contract change “effectively prevents I-77 from being widened with general purpose lanes,” and says “neither town staff nor the town board were aware of this change.”
Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy said Tuesday that he is upset that local officials weren’t told about the new language in the contract.
“It’s disgraceful,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to pay (for the widening of I-77). And somehow there is this critical, critical exception.”
The DOT declined to comment Tuesday on the Cornelius resolution. It referred to a news release that laid out a timeline for the project, including a planned financial close with the developer on May 27. That is the last hurdle in the project, allowing construction to begin this summer.
The DOT has previously declined to answer questions as to how the new contract was changed. The developer referred questions to the DOT.
The toll project has met stiff opposition from residents, who want the interstate widened with free lanes and paid for with existing gas tax revenues.
A significant number of public officials have also questioned the project.
The 5-0 passage of Monday’s resolution was the first unanimous vote that questioned the project or asked for a delay.
Other public officials have supported the project.
When asked about the noncompete clause last week, Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain referred questions about the project to the state. But she said she understands that “the state can undertake any construction, maintenance or other activity that it wants on I-77.”
When the toll project is finished in 2018, the developer will convert the existing carpool lane on I-77 into a toll lane. I-77 Mobility Partners will also add a new toll lane from uptown to Mooresville.
When the project is finished, much of I-77 in north Mecklenburg and south Iredell counties will have two free lanes and one toll lane in each direction.
Some have questioned whether that will be enough capacity to handle population growth in the area over the next five decades.