I-77 toll lane foes file complaint to stop project

A citizens group opposed to planned toll lanes on Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Mooresville filed a complaint Tuesday to stop the project.

The complaint, filed by Widen I-77 in Mecklenburg County Superior Court, contends the project would violate state law by converting a stretch of an existing general purpose lane into a toll lane.

“State law allows for this if the number of general purpose lanes remains the same,” Widen I-77 said on its website Tuesday. “In other words, a general purpose lane must be added for every one that is converted to a restricted lane. However, for a stretch of I-77, the plan eliminates a general purpose lane. ”

The complaint also contends that collecting a percentage of toll revenues by the N.C. Department of Transportation amounts to taxation without representation.

“The North Carolina Constitution grants taxation powers to the General Assembly, not government agencies,” Widen I-77 said on its website. “In the current scenario, we have an unelected bureaucracy negotiating a de facto tax rate with a private company. We call that taxation without representation. Ultimately, of course, that’s for the courts to decide.”

Project proponents, however, insist motorists would be paying a fee – not a tax – to use the lanes.

Widen I-77 filed its 18-page complaint against the N.C. DOT, the state and I-77 Mobility Partners LLC, a subsidiary of the project’s contractor, Cintra US.

The group seeks both preliminary and permanent injunctions against the project.

“Our hope is that the injunction will show this privatization of our public infrastructure and roads is an unconstitutional way to proceed,” Widen I-77 member Vince Winegardner said.

Widen I-77 raised about $20,000 from about 100 concerned residents to file the complaint, spokesman Kurt Naas said at a news conference Tuesday morning at the Charlotte law offices of Arnold & Smith, which represents Widen I-77 in its complaint.

Widen I-77 filed the complaint two days before Cintra must secure funding for the project.

The Transportation Department said in a statement Tuesday that it will extend the deadline without penalty, as the contract allows, “because both parties are working together to complete all requirements.”

In separate statements, N.C. DOT and I-77 Mobility Partners said they won’t comment on pending litigation but cited what they called the project’s benefits.

The lanes will provide “a long-term solution to one of the most congested roadways in our state,” the Transportation Department said.

Drivers can choose to continue using general purpose lanes for free, use the new express lanes for free with three or more people in the car or pay the toll with fewer occupants, N.C. DOT said.

“Through a Public Private Partnership, this solution will be operational in a few years instead of waiting decades, and it will be built at a fraction of the cost to the state,” N.C. DOT said.

The project will help relieve congestion and create nearly 10,000 jobs, with nearly 100 North Carolina firms expected to participate in the construction, I-77 Mobility Partners said in its statement.

The project will add two toll lanes northbound and southbound on I-77 from the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte to Exit 28 in Cornelius. It will add one toll lane in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36.

Cintra will pay most of the costs and, for 50 years, will maintain and operate the lanes while collecting most of the toll revenue. Toll amounts have not been determined.

State officials have said North Carolina couldn’t afford to widen the road itself, and toll lanes are the best way to expand the road quickly.

Naas, however, said at Tuesday’s news conference that it’s far cheaper for the state to expand the highway – about $100 million for a general purpose lane compared with the $655 million price tag with Cintra.