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As other cities protest, Charlotte leaders quietly accept terms of I-77 toll lane deal

Interstate 77 traffic crawls during the 5:30 p.m. commute.
Interstate 77 traffic crawls during the 5:30 p.m. commute. OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

While there has been a growing furor over the noncompete clause in the state’s contract to build toll lanes on Interstate 77, the city of Charlotte has stayed on the sidelines and hasn’t criticized the project.

Cornelius passed a resolution asking the state for a 90-day delay in moving forward with the financial close. Officials in Huntersville, Mooresville and Davidson have also raised concerns, and Mecklenburg commissioners are scheduled to consider a resolution Tuesday that asks for a delay.

The N.C. Department of Transportation said Thursday it’s moving forward with the project’s May 27 financial close with the developer, I-77 Mobility Partners.

The controversy is over a 50-year noncompete clause that’s part of the contract. After the toll lanes are finished in 2018, the DOT would likely have to pay the developer compensation if it builds new free lanes on the highway.

In the fall of 2013, local transportation planners added a project to widen I-77 with free lanes in the Lake Norman area to the Long Range Transportation Plan, with construction starting in 15 or 25 years. In January 2014, the noncompete clause was changed with new language to exclude that project.

A number of local officials hadn’t known about the change and were upset with the state for not informing them.

Charlotte City Council member David Howard, who previously served as the council’s transportation chair, said noncompete clauses are common and needed in public-private partnerships.

“That's how those deals work,” Howard said. “I have lived with this (project) now for the last six years. Those guys want to be make sure they can pay back what they are investing in.”

Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter said city officials do not plan to discuss the issue. He said council member Vi Lyles, the city’s current transportation chair and voting member on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, doesn’t believe any discussion or resolution about the project is needed.

She said last week she wished the DOT would have been more open about the noncompete clause and how it was changed.

The project will convert the existing carpool lane on I-77 into a toll lane and also add a new toll lane from uptown to exit 28 in Cornelius.

About one-third of the project is in the Charlotte city limits.

Council members weigh in

North Mecklenburg officials are concerned that the highway won’t have enough capacity when the project is finished. When the project is finished, much of I-77 in north Mecklenburg and south Iredell counties will have two free lanes and one toll lane in each direction. In Huntersville, there will be two toll lanes and two free lanes each way.

Clodfelter was asked whether he thought the highway would have enough capacity to bring commuters and goods in and out of Charlotte over the next few decades.

He said he hadn’t been shown the contract and didn’t know the details of how much traffic it could handle.

Howard also said he didn’t know whether the highway would be large enough to keep people in the free lanes moving.

Council member Al Austin, whose district includes the I-77 corridor, said he hasn’t studied the issue in detail since he took office in December 2013.

He said he has concerns that the toll lanes “are for the rich” and said he wants to spend more money on mass transit. He said he spoke with Lyles about the toll-lane controversy but doesn’t plan to discuss it in a meeting.

Chamber backs proposal

The Charlotte Chamber released a video urging the state to move forward with the project.

Bill Russell, president and chief executive of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, said Friday that his group has always backed widening the highway. But he said the town’s questions about the project require more information from the state.

In a letter to local officials Thursday, N.C. Transportation Chief Deputy Secretary Nick Tennyson said the state has been upfront about the noncompete clause.

“We have repeatedly made comments in public meetings, private discussions and in posted documents on the website that the approved I-77 project restricted building additional lanes on the road,” he said.

He also said the financial model for the project depends on the noncompete clause. “N.C. DOT’s evaluation of the potential revenue from the project used that assumption as its basis, as did the estimates of all those who evaluated the project as potential bidders,” he said.

Gov. Pat McCrory said Thursday that the state is responding to the wishes of the local planning organization, which endorsed the project earlier this decade.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Jim Puckett, who represents north Mecklenburg, said Friday morning at a meeting of Lake Norman business leaders that he has enough support on the board to pass his resolution, which seeks a delay in the project, on Tuesday.

Staff writer Joe Marusak contributed.

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