A consultant hired to review the Interstate 77 toll lane project recommends the N.C. Department of Transportation consider the so-called “Complete and Delete” option recommended by Lake Norman toll-lane opponents.
Under the Complete and Delete proposal, the contractor, I-77 Mobility Partners, would finish building the toll lanes from uptown to Mooresville. Then, before the project opens to traffic, the state would buy the contractor out and take over the project.
The state might convert all of the new traffic lanes into free, general-purpose lanes. The DOT also might keep some of the toll lanes.
“We're heartened that they have listened to the tremendous public response,” said Kurt Naas, a leader of the group Widen I-77, which opposes the project. “We recommend the ‘complete and delete’ option. That was our catch phrase. Let’s complete the project and delete the tolling aspect.”
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Buying out the contractor would be expensive. The cost would be higher: The debt owed on the project compared with the fair market value of the toll lanes.
Naas said that would likely be the outstanding debt, which would be $289 million.
Mercator said the contractor has spent $217 million on the project as of July. That includes $17 million in DOT funds.
The DOT hired Philadelphia-based Mercator Advisors to review the I-77 contract and research ways it could be altered. The consultant initially studied the possibility of buying out the contractor immediately, but decided that the Widen I-77 proposal also made sense.
“Since my charge was to address public concerns, (Complete and Delete) should go forward,” said Jim Taylor, a principal with Mercator. “They flipped the order. They thought you could use private money to build the toll lanes and then delete the toll lanes.”
Mercator presented its final report to the Charlotte Regional Transportation Organization Wednesday night.
It’s possible the DOT may do nothing and let the project stand. The state could also pay I-77 Mobility Partners money to convert one of the planned toll lanes into a free lane.
It could also make smaller changes to the toll lanes, such as allowing vehicles with only two passengers to use lanes for free. The plan is that only vehicles with three or more passengers can use the lanes for free.
Beau Memory, executive director of the N.C. Turnpike Authority, said he doesn’t know when the state will make a final decision.
“The important thing is to make a good decision, not a quick decision,” he said. “I’m hesitant to put a timeline on it. Whatever we do from here is we want to continue to engage the public.”
The controversial contract was signed under former Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration. Some credit opposition to the toll lanes for Democrat Roy Cooper’s narrow victory over McCrory in the last election.
But it’s unclear whether Cooper’s DOT is willing to find tens of millions of dollars to alter or Complete and Delete the project.