Some North Carolina lawmakers are supporting efforts to cancel a much-criticized agreement with a private developer to build toll lanes along Interstate 77 north of Charlotte.
The House Transportation and Appropriations committees on Wednesday moved to the chamber floor the proposal to pull out of a 50-year contract the state has signed with Cintra. The panels acted despite warnings from Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson that canceling could cost millions of dollars in fees and would leave the area without any clear solutions for its traffic problems.
Both committees, however, accepted the bill “without prejudice,” as opposed to favorably. “Without prejudice” is a seldom-used procedural action that often reflects the lack of strong support for a measure while still keeping the bill alive.
Representatives from Mecklenburg County said they want improvement for the congested I-77 area, but they are concerned about the specific agreement that would create 26 miles of toll lanes between Charlotte and Cornelius.
“At no point have we stood up and said we are opposed to the concept of managed lanes. We have said we are opposed to what we believe is an inherently flawed contract. They are materially different things,” said Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Jeter said the road won’t be able to handle heavy trucks, and some local businesses along the highway would suffer. He also said the tolls will cost drivers, primarily residents from Mecklenburg County, an estimated $10 billion throughout the entirety of the 50-year contract.
Rep. John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, said the traffic problem only lasts about 13 of the proposed 26 miles, and suggested starting with wider lanes in that stretch.
But Tennyson told the committee that canceling the contract could result in penalty fees of up to $250 million, limiting funding for completion of infrastructure projects in the region and throughout the state. Tennyson said the contract allows the state to build a $640 million project for about 20 percent of that cost and ensures maintenance of the roads for the next 50 years.
Ned Curran, board chair of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said withdrawing from the agreement could cause other potential contractors to shy away from working with the state.
“This project has had a chilling effect on their interest in doing business with the state of North Carolina,” Curran said.
Gov. Pat McCrory has previously said that the toll project should proceed because of decisions made by elected leaders in the past decade, but he has also blamed poor infrastructure planning from the past 25 years for having to create the toll lanes in the first place.