The controversial Interstate 77 toll lane project will not be delayed, the N.C. Department of Transportation said Thursday in response to a growing furor from towns upset about details of the project’s contract.
A noncompete clause means the DOT would likely have to compensate the private developer if the state decides to add new free lanes to the highway over the next 50 years.
Some local officials were concerned that the clause was changed in early 2014 in a way that could hinder a planned widening of the highway in the Lake Norman area, between Exits 28 and 36.
They have said they weren’t told about the change and didn’t know it was part of the contract.
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But N.C. Transportation Chief Deputy Secretary Nick Tennyson said the state has been upfront about the noncompete clause.
“We have repeatedly made comments in public meetings, private discussions and in posted documents on the website that the approved I-77 project restricted building additional lanes on the road,” Tennyson said in a letter to local officials.
He added that the financial model for the project depends on the noncompete clause.
“N.C. DOT’s evaluation of the potential revenue from the project used that assumption as its basis, as did the estimates of all those who evaluated the project as potential bidders,” he said.
The Cornelius Town Board passed a resolution asking for a 90-day on the financial close of the project, scheduled for May 27.
Officials in Huntersville, Mooresville and Davidson have also raised concerns. Mecklenburg commissioners are scheduled to consider a resolution Tuesday that asks for a delay.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was asked about the toll controversy in Kannapolis on Thursday morning. He said the state is following the direction of the local transportation planning organization, which voted for the toll project.
“We’re following the lead of what the local officials asked for four or five years ago,” McCrory said. “We’re implementing that. To re-pivot with a week or two to go throws a curve ball that’s very unreasonable.”
Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett, a Republican who represents the Lake Norman area, criticized McCrory’s comments. Referring to the exclusion of the Lake Norman widening, Puckett said the contract has “changed substantially since first presented.”
He also said that I-77 could be widened with free lanes if included in a $3 billion bond package that McCrory has proposed.
He compared the state’s decision to stay the course akin to executing someone after evidence is found that shows the person is innocent.
“God help us if our leadership refuses to do the right thing simply because we are too far down the road to easily change our course,” Puckett said.
The developer, I-77 Mobility Partners, will convert the existing carpool lane into an express toll lane. It will also build a new toll lane from uptown to Mooresville.
But some local transportation officials are worried that the interstate will still be heavily congested in five or 10 years. Much of the I-77 corridor will have two free lanes and one toll lane in each direction when the project is complete.
If the state decides to build new free lanes after the initial toll project opens in 2018, it would likely have to compensate the developer for lost toll revenue.
The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization voted in the fall of 2013 to include the widening of I-77 at Lake Norman into the area’s Long Range Transportation Plan.
In Tennyson’s letter, the deputy secretary said I-77 Mobility Partners and other possible bidders hadn’t accounted for that project when making their financial calculations.
“At that stage in the process, the state would have either had to allow bidders to modify their proposals to increase public funding to account for the revenue risk entailed, or make it one of the potential compensating events,” he said.
The Lake Norman area widening is scheduled to be built in a 10-year window between 2031 and 2040.