Transportation secretary: Texas bankruptcy no basis for canceling I-77 toll contract

Work continues in the median of I-77 north at Huntersville this week.
Work continues in the median of I-77 north at Huntersville this week. Mark Hames

North Carolina’s top transportation official said Friday a Texas toll road bankruptcy provides no basis for canceling a similar contract with a company that’s building a privately operated toll lane on Interstate 77.

Secretary of Transportation Nick Tennyson is traveling to Texas on Monday to gather more information about the bankruptcy of another toll lane project in which Spanish company Cintra is a partner.

The Texas road company, SH 130, filed for bankruptcy this week after ridership and revenue on its privately administered toll road failed to meet expectations.

Speaking after a regional summit on transportation infrastructure hosted by the Charlotte Chamber on Friday, Tennyson said the Texas bankruptcy is unrelated to the Lake Norman project and wouldn’t provide a basis for canceling the contract.

“Not in any way that I see,” said Tennyson, speaking with reporters after his remarks on the state’s transportation vision. “There is nothing about an independent project or an independent entity having financial trouble that affects our contract.”

Financially, the subsidiaries in Texas and Charlotte are completely separate.

“The governor has said to me, ‘I want you to look into this,’ ” and make sure North Carolina is protected, Tennyson said. He said Gov. Pat McCrory has asked him for a report outlining all available options. Tennyson didn’t have a timeline for the report.

But Tennyson did acknowledge the bankruptcy of another Cintra-related entity is likely to draw further scrutiny for a company that’s already drawn fierce criticism.

“Ya think?” he quipped when asked about the public’s perception, adding that bankruptcy is a “toxic” word.

“There is incredibly heightened sensitivity,” said Tennyson.

McCrory has directed the state Department of Transportation to examine all options for the contract with Cintra, which has already begun construction on a 26-mile toll lane project on I-77 north of Charlotte. The lanes are expected to open in 2018.

The contract gives the company revenue from the I-77 tolls, which will vary with usage and congestion, for 50 years.

The toll project has drawn intense opposition from north Mecklenburg County residents and lawmakers, who have portrayed the toll project as unfair and certain to fail. They want to see the toll lanes replaced by free lanes.

Cintra was one of the sponsors of the Chamber summit. The secretary portrayed his Texas trip as mainly a fact-finding mission.

“What I’m expecting to do is have a candid DOT-DOT conversation” with Texas officials, Tennyson said. He also said he plans to ride on the toll road, which has a top speed limit of 85 mph between Austin and San Antonio, to get a firsthand perspective.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo