Opponents of the Interstate 77 toll-lane project have been optimistic the N.C. Department of Transportation wants to help them, either by buying out the master developer, Cintra, or paying the Spanish firm to alter the contract.
But those opponents are worried that state legislators are getting in the way.
The General Assembly's budget has language that says if DOT seeks to change or cancel the contract, that decision is "subject to an express appropriation by the General Assembly."
Cornelius Commissioner Kurt Naas, who has led a multi-year fight against the toll lanes, said the DOT has argued in court that it can cancel or modify the contract on its own. The budget bill changes that, he said.
"This makes it harder to do the right thing," he said.
The bill also says that money from the state's Strategic Transportation Initiatives fund can't be used to change or cancel the contract. Naas said that's understandable, since legislatures are likely worried that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on I-77 might gobble up funding for highway projects in their hometowns.
Naas and other opponents have suggested the state could use money from a possible transportation bond this fall to change the contract. Another option is for the state to buy out Cintra, but still keep one toll lane in each direction. The toll revenue would be used to pay off debt the state would likely incur to buy out Cintra.
The $647 million I-77 toll lane project is scheduled to open by the end of the year. It will add two toll lanes in each direction from uptown to Exit 28 in Cornelius. From Exit 28 to Exit 36 there will be one new express toll lane in each direction.
On the Facebook page for the group Widen I-77 — a hub for toll-lane opponents — people were furious about the language in the bill. They called the change "horrendous" and said the state would continue to "bleed the taxpayer."
But other toll-lane opponents said they don't believe the new language will prevent a deal.
Mecklenburg Republican Commissioner Jim Puckett, a toll-lane opponent, said he met last week in Raleigh with DOT officials, legislative leaders and Ken Eudy, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's adviser. He said it's understandable legislators are worried I-77 would delay their highway projects, and he said they just want to be included in the state's negotiations.
"No one wants to lose a project to this," Puckett said.
But he said legislators have a different view of the project compared with four years ago, when many legislators dismissed north Mecklenburg's concerns.
"Everyone I see says, 'You are right, this thing is the nastiest thing we have seen,' " Puckett said.
Puckett is a member of an advisory group of politicians and business leaders that met at the DOT's request earlier this year. The group said the state should either buy out the contract or pay Cintra to convert one of the two toll lanes to a free lane.
N.C. Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon told the group he would bring them a recommendation this summer, possibly in July.
Republican State Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius said the budget bill would not stop the state from altering the contract.
"Everybody is clear and comfortable about this," Tarte said. "No one has any major heartburn. It doesn't impact the ability to cancel the contract or to renegotiate."