Politics & Government

With I-77 work set to begin, one more effort to stop it

Traffic rolls south on I-77 toward Charlotte on Monday June 23, 2014. Last week’s election results in north Mecklenburg over I-77 toll lanes hold warnings for 2016
Traffic rolls south on I-77 toward Charlotte on Monday June 23, 2014. Last week’s election results in north Mecklenburg over I-77 toll lanes hold warnings for 2016 jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Three days before work starts on the Interstate 77 toll lanes, two N.C. senators Friday plan to ask Gov. Pat McCrory to cancel the project.

Republican Sen. David Curtis of Lincolnton said Thursday that he and Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius will announce their plan at a morning news conference.

I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of the Spanish company Cintra, announced Thursday that work will start Monday south of Exit 23 in Huntersville and extend to Exit 28 in Cornelius.

The state has signed a contract with Cintra to design, build and operate the lanes. The project calls for two toll lanes between Charlotte’s Brookshire Freeway and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One toll lane would continue in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36. Construction is expected to be completed in 2018.

The contract could effectively block the state from building additional free lanes on the road for 50 years, though the N.C. Department of Transportation says under some circumstances it could add another lane.

Proponents say toll roads offer a way to meet road needs in a state strapped for transportation resources. Critics say the state hasn’t done enough to explore alternatives, such as bonds.

Canceling the contract could trigger a penalty as high as $100 million. But Curtis said he and Tarte don’t believe that’s the case.

“We think there’s enough issues with the contract that they’d have a hard forcing the state to pay that penalty,” Curtis said.

The news conference is scheduled to be held at the Lake Norman Chamber, which opposes the tolls.

“We’re adamantly opposed to the toll lanes,” said chamber president Bill Russell. “It’s bad for the citizens, it’s bad for the businesses.… There is no question that they can stop the project. Is there going to be a penalty or some kind of cost? Yes. But we can do that.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville has called for a “summit” of local leaders to discuss options with the toll lanes. It’s unclear what McCrory’s involvement would be in any summit.

Spokesman Graham Wilson said, “We are always open to viable ideas and realistic solutions about decisions made by past and current political leaders from the Charlotte region which led to the current actions by N.C. Department of Transportation.”

Initial construction on the 5-mile stretch in Huntersville and Cornelius will involve land clearing and grading, I-77 Mobility said. Next year drivers will see construction along most of the 26-mile toll project from Charlotte to Mooresville.

“We believe this project will provide a benefit to I-77 users as an improvement to their daily quality of life,” said Mobility spokeswoman Jean Leier.

Staff writer Joe Marusak contributed.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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