Pushing the battle over Interstate 77 into the governor’s race, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration claims that Attorney General – and Democratic rival – Roy Cooper tacitly supported a controversial contract to build new toll lanes.
The claims came after the Observer reported that much of the anger over the I-77 toll project has been directed toward McCrory, who has declined requests to cancel the contract.
A Cooper campaign spokesman said the contract “would not have been signed in the first place” if Cooper was governor. That drew a sharp response from Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson.
“(The contract) was developed through meetings in which representatives from the Attorney General’s office were actively involved,” he said in a statement to the Observer. “They had the opportunity to raise objections or ask questions at any time since those conversations began in 2012.”
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Cooper, said his office “did not negotiate or sign the agreement.”
“Attorneys with our office who reviewed the contract did so to determine if it’s legal, not whether it’s good policy,” she said.
The allegations move the controversy squarely into what’s expected to be one of the nation’s most contested governor’s races.
Though each faces opposition in the March 15 primary, McCrory and Cooper are the leading and best-funded candidates for the state’s top job.
In 2014, the state contracted for the $650 million, 26-mile project with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of the Spanish firm Cintra. The project, scheduled to finish in 2018, will add express lanes alongside existing free lanes between Charlotte and Mooresville.
In a 2014 report to the General Assembly, transportation officials said population growth “has rendered the I-77 corridor one of the most congested corridors in the state.”
Many residents of north Mecklenburg and southern Iredell counties have been outspoken in their opposition to the project.
Last November, voters turned out Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain and other officials who had supported it. Among the reasons that critics cite: a contract provision that would make it very hard for the state to add additional general purpose lanes for 50 years.
The contract was negotiated by DOT and private consultants including Nossaman, a California-based law firm.
Our lawyers’ job is to make sure it’s legal, not determine whether toll roads are a good policy or a smart idea.
Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper
“This agreement was written and negotiated by private lawyers hired and paid for by DOT, not by lawyers with the Attorney General’s Office,” Talley said. “And our lawyers’ job is to make sure it’s legal, not determine whether toll roads are a good policy or a smart idea.”
Both DOT and the Justice Department provided a June 2014 letter to I-77 Mobility Partners from Elizabeth McKay, a special deputy attorney general. In it, she wrote the contract appeared to comply with state law.
“I have not made any investigation concerning the Project or other financial resources of the NCDOT or the Developer,” she added in the letter. She also said the letter reflected her own opinion, not that of the Justice Department.
McKay also signed a standard legal review form required by law for all state contracts over $1 million. It included a checklist of legal requirements, such as authorizing the state auditor to audit the company during the term of the contract.
If it was a dog of a contract, that was Roy Cooper’s opportunity to speak up and say ‘Don’t sign it.’
Lynette Rinker, a former mayor of Cornelius and Mecklenburg GOP official
“If it was a dog of a contract, that was Roy Cooper’s opportunity to speak up and say ‘Don’t sign it,’ ” said Lynette Rinker, a former mayor of Cornelius and Mecklenburg GOP official. “DOT couldn’t sign the contract until that approval was received.”
McCrory campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz said that if Cooper maintains that he wouldn’t have signed the contract, “he’s either not doing his job, flip flopping or just trying to score political points.”
Last month, Cooper’s office began a consumer protection probe of I-77 Mobility Partners. It asked for an array of documents related to the company, including any relating to “the failure of the toll road operated by SH 130 Concession Company to meet projections regarding traffic and toll revenue.”
That company, co-owned by Cintra, operates a 41-mile-long toll road near Austin, Texas, where traffic has been below projections.
Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican who has asked McCrory to cancel the contract, said DOT “is playing the blame game.”
“It’s always easy to play armchair quarterback,” he said. “But the reality is the attorney general is tasked with reviewing the contract for consistency with state and federal laws, not necessarily the policy of the contract itself.
“I would argue that the vast criticism of that contract has to do with policy issues, and that was solely under the purview of N.C. DOT. Instead of trying to be a part of the solution, N.C. DOT wants to exacerbate it by putting blinders on and blaming others for their mistake.”