Bill would make county, towns pay for I-77 toll cancellation penalty

A bill was introduced in the N.C. House Thursday that would end the state’s contract with a private developer to build express toll lanes on I-77.
A bill was introduced in the N.C. House Thursday that would end the state’s contract with a private developer to build express toll lanes on I-77. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

There is a new effort in the General Assembly to kill the Interstate 77 toll lane project, when a bill was filed Thursday that holds Mecklenburg County and several towns responsible for damages.

The N.C. Department of Transportation has said the state could have to pay as much as $100 million in penalties for breaking the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of the Spanish company Cintra.

To pay that penalty, the state would withhold sales taxes from Mecklenburg County, and the municipalities of Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville. Those governments passed resolutions that either requested more information on the toll project or asked that it not move forward.

The city of Charlotte wouldn’t have to pay for the toll road penalty. The City Council hasn’t questioned the project, and has generally been supportive of the toll lanes.

The new bill, introduced in the House Rules committee, hasn’t had a hearing yet. A draft does list the sponsor. State Rep. David Lewis said Thursday the bill isn’t ready for consideration, and said it “might” come up again.

State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, who is opposed to the toll lanes, said he doesn’t think it makes sense to make the towns and the county pay for the state’s penalty to the private developer.

But he said opposition to the project is growing.

“There is a little bit of a groundswell,” he said. “It’s one step at a time.”

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said she had been in touch with officials in the county’s northern towns on Thursday to talk about the “detrimental” impact canceling the toll lanes contract could have on the county.

It comes at the same time officials are waiting for news on a possible change in the way sales tax revenue is distributed statewide – a measure they say could mean Mecklenburg losing $200 million over four years.

“We would be having to deal with any kind of changes to the sales tax redistribution, as well as something like this,” Diorio said of the tolls proposal.

Should lawmakers approve both plans, the full damage in Mecklenburg County won’t be realized until next year’s budget process, she said.

Earlier this week Mecklenburg Commissioners voted to direct their voting member of a regional transportation planning group to reject a long-range plan that includes the I-77 toll lane project.

The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, or CRTPO, will vote on the plan later this month.

But the opposition of Mecklenburg County and several towns may not matter. The votes on the organization are weighted, and the city of Charlotte has 31 of the 68 votes.

The city’s voting member, council member Vi Lyles, said Wednesday she will vote in favor of the long-range plan.

Andy Curliss contributed

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs