With time running out, some lawmakers are making a last-ditch bid to find an alternative to Interstate 77 toll lanes.
They’re not optimistic, but the effort reflects growing concern that the project could hinder added free lanes in the future.
“The basic question is is there an option to get a last-minute alternative?” said Republican Sen. David Curtis, who represents much of Iredell County. “It looks like the answer is no.”
Curtis was one of a handful of lawmakers from the I-77 corridor whose attempt came at a Monday night meeting with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and administration officials.
The state is about to sign a final contract with I-77 Mobility Partners to convert existing express lanes into toll lanes. Concerns about the contract have risen since revelations that it includes a noncompete clause that restricts the state from widening the interstate for 50 years.
The same night the lawmakers met with the governor, the Huntersville town board passed a resolution expressing its concern with the contract. Last week Cornelius commissioners unanimously passed a resolution asking the state to delay a final contract for 90 days.
And Tuesday evening, the Davidson town board passed a resolution asking the N.C. Department of Transportation for an explanation about changes to the toll lane contract, according to WBTV, the Observer’s news partner.
The lawmakers, including GOP Reps. John Bradford of Cornelius and John Fraley of Mooresville, are trying to find out whether it is feasible to add the I-77 project to McCrory’s proposed bond referendum on nearly $3 billion worth of transportation and infrastructure projects. Barring that, they asked whether bonds could finance a portion of the $650 million project.
The administration promised answers later this week.
Bradford said the bond option wasn’t on the table when the I-77 toll project was first proposed. Despite its frequent congestion, state transportation officials have consistently said widening the roadway with state money would not be possible for years.
Lawmakers said the bonds could be an option.
“We’d like it to be considered,” said Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican. “If not we’d like to understand why.”
But other lawmakers said there could be several reasons why it wouldn’t work.
For one thing, it’s late in a process that started years ago. GOP Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville said it almost surely would spark expensive legal challenges. For another, it’s unclear whether the state would have the debt capacity to absorb an additional $650 million.
And Curtis said administration officials have said the project would need extensive environmental review.
And then there are the counter pressures to move ahead with the toll project.
Last week the Charlotte Chamber released an online video supporting the toll lanes.
“We need to get on with the toll project,” Chamber President Bob Morgan said Monday. “It’s been 10 years in the making. These opportunities don’t come along every day.”
If it fails, Morgan said, it would be the second proposed public-private partnership to do so. Officials have all but pulled the plug on the planned Garden Parkway, a toll road through Gaston County.
“If we see another one killed we’re going to lose the opportunity to engage pub-private partnerships,” Morgan said, “because the message will be that North Carolina is closed for business.”