Politics & Government

Gov. Pat McCrory sidesteps effort to stop I-77 toll lanes

Traffic on Interstate 77 north of exit 28 in Cornelius, Friday, November 13, 2015. Four state lawmakers Friday urged Gov. Pat McCrory to cancel an I-77 toll lane project that is supposed to start Monday. McCrory has sidestepped the request.
Traffic on Interstate 77 north of exit 28 in Cornelius, Friday, November 13, 2015. Four state lawmakers Friday urged Gov. Pat McCrory to cancel an I-77 toll lane project that is supposed to start Monday. McCrory has sidestepped the request. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Gov. Pat McCrory Friday sidestepped a request by four lawmakers to stop the Interstate–77 toll project, despite concerns that it would cause “irreparable harm” to their communities.

His statement came amid a flurry of developments surrounding the controversial toll project, just 72 hours before work was set to begin.

▪ The four lawmakers not only asked McCrory to cancel the 923-page contract with the Spanish firm Cintra, but sought a temporary restraining order to halt work.

▪ Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican, scheduled a Nov. 23 “summit” of local and state leaders to discuss the project.

▪ McCrory, meanwhile, threw the issue back to the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization – which approved the tolls in August as part of a broader transportation program.

“The governor neither requested this project nor would it be appropriate for him to cancel the contract … without clear direction from the local elected officials who requested and approved [it],” State Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson said in a statement.

The developments came as opposition to the tolls continues to grow.

Last week anti-toll candidates swept to victory in municipal elections in Huntersville and other northern Mecklenburg towns.

On Monday, Cintra is scheduled to start construction of 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.

‘New information’

In a letter to McCrory, four Republicans – Sens. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius and David Curtis of Lincolnton as well as Reps. Jeter and John Bradford of Cornelius – warned that if the toll project goes forward, “communities and businesses will suffer irreparable harm.”

They pointed to what they called new information uncovered since the contract was first signed in 2014. Among other things, the lawmakers said the new lanes would be built below the standards required to accommodate trucks and heavy vehicles.

They said the project could help some businesses and hurt others because the design provides no ingress or egress points at some exits.

And, they said the state’s potential liability if the company goes bankrupt will be considerably higher than once believed.

Cintra could start the project with as much as $290 million in debt. In addition, the loans for that debt are back-loaded, meaning its subsidiary, I-77 Mobility Partners, doesn’t have to pay principal and interest for years. That could add tens of millions of additional debt to the project.

DOT’s contract calls for the state to pay up to 80 percent of the outstanding debt in case of a default. Critics have said I-77 Mobility Partners could walk away if the debt payments becomes unmanageable. DOT and I-77 Mobility Partners said that’s not the case. They have said that the developer would lose $250 million in equity if the project goes bust.

Tennyson, responding for the governor, said the lawmakers’ letter was “riddled with inaccurate and false claims.”

“The information you have provided does not support a termination for cause as the assertions upon which your request is based are largely misinformed,” he wrote. “The only mechanism for termination would be a termination for convenience, which would invoke breakage costs to the state.”

Tarte welcomed that offer while not mentioning McCrory’s refusal to immediately cancel the project.

“We are excited that Secretary Tennyson and the governor responded so quickly,” Tarte said. “We were pleased to learn that they are interested and willing in helping guide our communities through the appropriate steps necessary to cancel the contract. We look forward to working together to find a practical solution to our congestion problem.”

Canceling just one step

Lawmakers made clear that canceling the toll contract would just be the first step in addressing traffic congestion.

“Canceling does not solve our congestion,” Bradford said. He and the other opponents said they had hope to get I-77 on the state’s priority list, which could not happen until 2017.

One Lake Norman-area lawmaker declined to sign the letter. Rep. John Fraley, a Mooresville Republican, said the issue there is more complicated.

“Because we have additional challenges and questions specific to Iredell County, which will have a profound impact on our area’s future and plans, I do not think it is responsible for our area to just say cancel the project and let the chips fall where they may,” he said in a statement.

The contract with Cintra could effectively block the state from building additional free lanes on the road for 50 years, though the NCDOT disputes that. Officials have said that under some circumstances, they could add another lane.

McCrory has previously said it was too late to reverse plans for the toll lanes, saying in June “you can’t change your mind after the contract has been signed.”

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

For some lawmakers, opposition to the tolls represents a change.

In 2013, Jeter said tolls, or so-called HOT lanes, seemed the only way to widen I-77. “The HOT lane concept, while it is not perfect, you can’t let great be the enemy of the good.”

And last year, Tarte said debate over the toll lanes is over. “It’s closed,” he said. “There’s nothing to debate.”

Staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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