Politics & Government

Could Senate vote signal the end to hated I-77 toll lanes? House doesn't agree

The N.C. Senate voted Thursday to appropriate up to $620 million to cancel or modify toll lanes as part of the I-77 widening in northern Mecklenburg. The state House refused to agree, sending the bill to a conference committee.
The N.C. Senate voted Thursday to appropriate up to $620 million to cancel or modify toll lanes as part of the I-77 widening in northern Mecklenburg. The state House refused to agree, sending the bill to a conference committee. Observer file

The N.C. Senate passed an amendment that would have let tolls be removed from the controversial Interstate 77 widening project in northern Mecklenburg County, although the state House failed to agree to it late Thursday.

The Senate language would have allowed Gov. Roy Cooper until Oct. 15 to direct the state Department of Transportation to cancel or modify the toll lanes' contract and would have appropriated up to $620 million to cover the expected costs, damages and penalties paid to the developer, the Spanish firm Cintra.

An advisory group created by the DOT has recommended a less-expensive plan of converting one toll lane into a general-purpose free lane. That would likely cost much less than $620 million.

State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, said the Senate language would have allowed the state to get rid of all tolls.

"We said, 'OK, let's fix this completely,' " Tarte said.

But as of now, that's not happening.

The House has not agreed to the Senate's recommendation of spending up to $620 million. Tarte said there is a concern that buying out the contract would take money from other highway projects.

As of Friday, there was no agreement between the two chambers.

"There has been no communication on I-77 at all," Tarte said. "But if we have to agree to protect a couple of pet projects, then I will do that."

On Tuesday, the House passed amendments that allocated up to $300 million from credit balances in state highway funds to pay the costs of canceling or modifying the toll-lanes contract.

Tarte said there were concerns whether the House plan was legal.

County Commissioner Jim Puckett, who represents northern Mecklenburg, cautioned Friday that the House and Senate votes aren't likely to be a final answer to the reviled toll lanes. The N.C. Department of Transportation has grappled with its options since last November, when it formed an advisory group to make recommendations.

The DOT's work toward a solution should continue, Puckett said. He's against funding to change the contract that affects other road projects.

"But we now have 100 percent agreement by both sides of the Legislature that this (toll lane) project has to end, and that’s been my goal all along," Puckett said. "I think we're there, but the problem now is how do you pay for it?"

Bill Russell, president of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, predicts neither the House nor Senate versions will be approved and that Transportation Secretary James Trogdon will continue to look at other options.

Removing toll lanes from the project would be contrary to the recommendations of the DOT advisory panel, most of whose members said last month that the state should convert only one of the two planned toll lanes to a free lane.

"The problem with the Senate bill saying no toll lanes is that it might be utopian and exactly what the citizens of Lake Norman want to hear, but we can't sell that," Russell said. Likely opponents, he said, would include the Charlotte Area Transit System, which wants to maintain dedicated lanes for buses.

Tarte's amendment of the House bill would divert funds from the budget for road construction in Iredell and Mecklenburg counties, as well as from road funding directed to Mecklenburg municipalities and municipalities in southern Iredell County.

On the Senate floor, N.C. Insider reported, Tarte told colleagues Thursday that the unpopular project has the potential to hurt economic development if changes aren't made. "It is imperative that we give the governor the tools and the options to do this," he said. "I beg you, I beg you to help us solve this problem in this corridor."

The money in the House version of the bill would be repaid by tolls collected over a 10-year period or from highway maintenance funds for Mecklenburg County, under an amendment introduced by Rep. John Bradford, a Cornelius Republican. A second amendment directed DOT to study, by Oct. 1, other potential funding sources for changing the contract.

The $647 million project is scheduled to open by the end of the year. As now planned, it will add two toll lanes in each direction from uptown to Exit 28 in Cornelius. From Exit 28 to Exit 36 in Mooresville there will be one new express toll lane in each direction.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender