Politics & Government

Is the independent I-77 toll lane review really independent? Some residents say no.

I-77 toll lane construction ramps up near uptown

Construction is underway way near near uptown between the I-85/I-77 and I-277-Brookshire Freeway/I-77 interchanges all part of the I-77 toll lanes project.
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Construction is underway way near near uptown between the I-85/I-77 and I-277-Brookshire Freeway/I-77 interchanges all part of the I-77 toll lanes project.

Some Lake Norman residents are saying that the N.C. Department of Transportation’s independent review of the Interstate 77 toll lanes contract is compromised because the firm chosen – Philadelphia-based Mercator Advisors – worked with the project’s developer, Cintra, in the past.

NCDOT announced Friday that Mercator Advisors would review the terms and scope of the state’s controversial contract with Cintra, whose subsidiary, I-77 Mobility Partners, is adding express lanes between Charlotte and Mooresville.

Mercator has no involvement with the toll lane project.

But the firm did work with Cintra on a Texas project in 2004, according to Texas Department of Transportation documents obtained by the Observer.

“That’s not an independent review,” said Mecklenburg Commissioner Pat Cotham, a Democrat who opposes the project. “That’s the fox guarding the chicken house.”

Other residents called out the state on social media.

“How on earth can this be construed as an ‘Independent’ study?” asked one Lake Norman resident. “Mercator is listed as one of Cintra’s vendors, for goodness sake! Just more posturing from the NCDOT, Governor Roy Cooper and Secretary Trogdon.”

NCDOT said Monday it was aware of the two firms working together when it hired Mercator for the review.

The state said Mercator’s work for Cintra was very small and was so long ago that the state decided the two firms had no real connection.

Nicole Meister, who works in NCDOT’s communications office, said Mercator had a “very limited piece of work” with Cintra. She said the firm was an adviser to help Cintra secure a federal low-interest loan.

“That was it,” Meister said.

I-77 Mobility Partners and Mercator did not respond to phone and email messages.

Cintra has built a number of toll lane and toll road projects in Texas, but the project that Mercator was involved with never moved forward, she said. She also said DOT’s point person on the project – Jim Taylor – came to Mercator in 2006 and wasn’t working for the firm when it worked with Cintra.

Meister said there aren’t many firms with the knowledge to understand such a specialized contract.

“This is an extremely specialized expertise that you need for what we’re looking for,” she said. “And to find a company that has that level of expertise, they either didn’t have the experience that we need or they have had a relationship with Cintra.”

She added: “In this case, we looked at a number of firms. We made a lot of phone calls and we did research. Mercator has the experience that we need. They don’t have that relationship.”

The project will add two express lanes in each direction between uptown Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One express lane each way will be added between Cornelius and Exit 36 in Mooresville.

The existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the southern part of the project are being converted to express lanes.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs