Politics & Government

Here’s why it could get harder to sue over NC road projects

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.

A North Carolina Senate bill could make it harder to challenge – or block – state road projects, the head of a group fighting the Interstate 77 toll project said Monday.

Senate Bill 613 would allow the state to collect attorney’s fees and court costs if it wins a legal challenge to any transportation project.

Kurt Naas, founder of the anti-toll group Widen I-77, said if passed, the bill could put a damper on legal challenges such as his. Widen I-77 sued the state transportation department in 2015 over its authority to enter into an agreement with a private company, I-77 Mobility Partners, to build the road.

In 2016 a Superior Court dismissed the complaint by the anti-toll group. The case is now on appeal.

“It would basically eliminate our ability to even bring the case,” Naas said, pointing to a provision that could make law firms liable for costs in cases they lose.

“No attorney who wants to stay in business would take on the case,” Naas said. “It eliminates the ability of a private party to retain an attorney against N.C. DOT.”

Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican who sponsored the bill, said it’s not targeted at I-77.

“It really was for the frivolous lawsuits that had no basis, that delayed road projects,” he said. “He can sue and win and get paid court costs and attorney’s fees.”

Tucker alluded to a lengthy battle in which an environmental group sued the DOT to protect the Carolina heel splitter mussel. The legal fight delayed the Monroe Bypass for years and added millions to the cost. Over the years lawmakers complained that endangered mussels delayed dozens of road projects statewide.

“I don’t think it’s aimed specifically at us,” Naas said. “But it is aimed at a citizens group like ours from taking action in the future.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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