If you hoped that Gov. Roy Cooper and the North Carolina Department of Transportation were going to announce the cancellation of the I-77 tolls contract with Cintra, you were surely disappointed Wednesday afternoon.
If you think that NC Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon’s plan to have one extra free lane from Exit 23 to 36 is a good-enough substitute, you might want to tap the brakes on that notion, too.
Here’s what Trogdon said Wednesday was his “Improve/Protect/Expand” plan for the controversial 26-mile project north of Charlotte: He would convert one toll lane to a free lane between exits 23-28 and add one free lane between exits 28-36. He would allow travel on hardened shoulders during peak traffic hours. He would cap tolls and offer frequent-driver discounts.
Here’s what Trogdon has to do first before any of those things become reality:
He has to have those changes (minus the hardened shoulders) scored with a Strategic Mobility Formula that’s required by the state’s Strategic Transportation Investments Law to see if they can be prioritized for state funding.
He has to clear the changes with the N.C. General Assembly.
He has to make sure those changes don’t affect funding for other transportation projects in the 2018 budget.
And oh yes, he has to make sure any modifications are OK with Cintra because of that contract the state signed. Guess who will want to be paid handsomely for any changes — and want additional modifications in response to Trogdon’s changes?
All of which means that you can add one thing to the Improve/Protect/Expand plan: Dream. Trogdon’s big I-77 tolls compromise is little more than a wish list. It’ll be subject to all the same political fear and slow-footing that have doomed any real changes to the Cintra contract thus far.
About that contract: Trogdon says “constraints from state laws and stipulations in the contract” prevent the state from outright tearing it up. He further explained that the STI scoring on cancellation would make it impossible in the near future. (The scoring on adding free lanes isn’t that promising either, by the way.)
But citing “scoring” as the obstacle to I-77 tolls cancellation is a bit like the co-owner of a business telling you he’s hamstrung by company policy. At least one state lawmaker, NC Sen. Jeff Tarte, says the governor and NCDOT can cancel the Cintra contract. Trogdon says state law makes that a non-option. Most everyone, it seems, is trying to hide in the trunk instead of grabbing the wheel and doing something about a contract few seem to want.
Meanwhile, construction on the toll lanes continues, Cintra gets more leverage by the day, and traffic on I-77 moves about as fast as a state official facing a difficult political choice.