As the deadline for the financial closing approaches on the Interstate 77 toll lane contract, the already messy situation seems to get messier by the day.
News of a quietly inserted clause that could effectively block new general-purpose lanes for 50 years has Lake Norman-area toll opponents fuming and politicians scrambling.
Cornelius commissioners have asked the state to delay the close of its deal with the private developers, I-77 Mobility Partners, for 90 days. Huntersville’s town board has passed a resolution expressing concern.
Davidson’s town board wants the N.C. Department of Transportation to explain the insertion of a noncompete clause in the toll lane contract – a move that could effectively block new general purpose lanes from Exit 28 to Exit 36.
Lawmakers from the area have met with Gov. Pat McCrory, desperate to find what Republican Sen. David Curtis of Iredell County called a “last-minute alternative.”
It seems clear, given the lawsuit the Widen I-77 residents’ group has filed against the project, that some residents are looking for any reason to block construction from starting. The noncompete clause is just the latest shiny new sledgehammer to apply to the hated project.
But it also seems clear that the DOT has provided ample reason for anger. How could the agency make such a huge change in the contract – one with incalculable impact on the region – and not make doubly sure local officials knew about it?
DOT officials, concerned about the Widen I-77 lawsuit, aren’t saying a whole lot about that. In a written statement, they suggest all the fuss about that stretch of 77 is pointless because they weren’t adding general-purpose lanes there in the next decade anyway.
That talks right past the fact that local transportation planners aren’t asking them to. The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization seeks to add one free lane on that stretch sometime between 2031 and 2040.
The DOT’s statement adds that the final terms for any possible future general-purpose lanes were outlined in the bid contract posted to its website in January 2014 – five months before the comprehensive agreement was signed.
They might be the only folks surprised that everyone didn’t immediately spot the noncompete clause there, buried beneath reams of technical and legal jargon.
In early 2014, they should have moved aggressively to notify the affected communities about the noncompete clause.
Howls of protest were inevitable, but at least back then people still had time to engage in thoughtful discussions and debate, and to negotiate changes if necessary. Instead, we have frantic last-minute huddles breaking out – always fertile breeding grounds for rash decisions.
The DOT and the private developers have already delayed the financial close three times. It’s slated for May 27. If the contract is as solid as the DOT believes, and the project is as sound as it contends, there’s no reason it can’t survive one more delay.
Give it another 30 days.