A North Carolina Department of Transportation consultant’s report this week explored ways to alter or abandon the Interstate 77 toll lane project, but some critics were disappointed that the report didn’t give details about how much changes might cost.
Kurt Nass, a leader of the group Widen I-77, which wants new free lanes on the highway, said the report by Mercator Advisors was a “swing and a miss.”
Huntersville Commissioner Rob Kidwell said the report seems “like another song and dance to the public.”
The N.C. Department of Transportation hired Philadelphia-based Mercator Advisors in April to review the I-77 contract with the Spanish firm Cintra, and to explore ways to improve or end the agreement. The firm is being paid $100,000.
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The report released Thursday was critical of how NCDOT under former Gov. Pat McCrory handled the public input for the project, and it said that opposition to the I-77 toll lane project is so intense that it would be a “potential justification” for canceling the project entirely.
The I-77 project will add express toll lanes from uptown to Exit 36 in Iredell County. The developer, Cintra’s subsidiary I-77 Mobility Partners, will manage the project for 50 years.
Mercator Advisors said DOT could cancel the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners “to be responsive to concerns that continue to be expressed by elected officials at the local, county and state level about the (public-private partnership) arrangement.”
While those words raised the spirits of toll-lane opponents, the report gave little information about how DOT would do that.
One scenario Mercator said it would review would be to let the project move forward – but convert one of the planned express toll lanes into a general-purpose lane. If that happened, DOT would still have an express lane from Cornelius to Charlotte, and commuters who don’t want to pay a toll would get some relief.
Mercator mentioned that scenario in its draft report, but only talked about it for two paragraphs in a 49-page document. It did not give DOT a range of how much money it might have to pay Cintra in compensation for lost toll revenue.
“I don’t know how you can make policy decisions when you have no numbers,” Naas said.
Jim Taylor of Mercator Advisors told the Observer Friday it would have been too difficult to create cost estimates.
“Too many assumptions were required to generate even ballpark estimates for the cost of each option,” he said in an email.
Taylor said he will tell the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization Wednesday “why we thought it was better to identify concepts instead of throwing out numbers that might lead to premature conclusions. We also want the public to identify other options that could be evaluated at the same time if NCDOT decides to do a traffic or engineering study.”
DOT and Mercator plan to accept public comment on the draft report at firstname.lastname@example.org through Sept. 9.
But Mecklenburg Commissioner Jim Puckett, an opponent of the project like Naas and Kidwell, said he’s still optimistic DOT will make changes.
He said he has met with new N.C. Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon and N.C. Turnpike Authority executive director Beau Memory about the project. He said he believes the state is “actively looking for response to the report.”
“They haven’t decided what they want to do,” said Puckett, who is a voting member of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which has the final say on the project.
DOT said Friday that Trogdon hasn’t been involved with the Mercator report, and that the Turnpike Authority will review it before he makes a recommendation to CRTPO.
The I-77 toll lane project was approved under McCrory’s administration. It was a key issue in last fall’s governor’s race, and some have linked the issue to Democrat Roy Cooper’s narrow victory over McCrory.
Cooper’s DOT hired Mercator.
Puckett said he believes the most workable plan is to convert one of the planned toll lanes into a free lane. That would give guaranteed travel times in toll lanes, but also relief for the majority of commuters.
“When I met with secretary Trogdon, I told him (having some new free lanes and toll lanes) was the most workable compromise I thought we could come with,” Puckett said. “That checks a box for everybody involved – the Lake Norman Chamber, the Charlotte Chamber, the logistics guys.”
If the state moves forward with that plan, it has two options.
It could leave the project in Cintra’s hands and then compensate the company for the lost toll revenue. That could be difficult, because both sides would likely disagree about how much toll revenue the company would lose.
Another option would be to buy out Cintra completely – either now or after the project is finished. The state could then convert one of the toll lanes to an express lane, and then have DOT or the Turnpike Authority manage the toll lanes.
The state plans to manage other toll lanes and toll roads under construction in the state, including the Monroe Expressway, the Triangle Expressway and toll lanes for I-485 and U.S. 74.
The regional planning organization – CRTPO – has voted for the toll lane project in the past. Any change would also have to be approved by CRTPO.
On the last vote in early 2016, the towns of Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville and Pineville, and Mecklenburg, Union and Iredell counties voted no. The city of Charlotte voted yes.
Kidwell, who is a CRTPO member, said Charlotte is the key vote, because its weighted vote accounts for nearly half of the total votes on the organization.
“Charlotte tends to vote with what DOT wants,” he said. “They have never not voted together.”
Vi Lyles, Charlotte’s mayor pro tem, is the city’s voting member on CRTPO.
“The state negotiated the contract, and it’s the state’s decision to determine if they want to make a change,” she said. “As long as the local communities don’t suffer financial consequences, then it’s up to the state.”