The story behind two I-77 toll bills (and a possible $300 million penalty for Charlotte)

The Observer editorial board


Two Charlotte-area legislators filed bills Monday in the N.C. House that would cancel the state’s I-77 toll roads contract with the Spanish firm Cintra.

Each of the legislators – Democrat Tricia Cotham and Republican Charles Jeter – serve Mecklenburg County. They work together and are publicly collegial. Their I-77 bills are mostly similar, with the same goal: Terminate the $660 million project, which broke ground last year.

So why not file one bill together?

The answer involves one very big difference in the bills, plus one disputed and potentially troubling conversation they had last week about it.

The difference: Cotham’s HB 950 includes a section that explicitly calls for damages or penalties from the I-77 contract’s cancellation to be paid by the N.C. Department of Transportation. (Those damages could reach $300 million, according to estimates.) Jeter’s HB 954 doesn’t have that language.

The conversation: According to Cotham, she and Jeter have planned for months to file an I-77 bill together. The two mentioned it to the Observer’s editorial board in January at a Charlotte City Council meeting on the issue. In that meeting, Jeter unsuccessfully lobbied council members to derail the I-77 tolls on their own by directing a representative to vote against managed lanes at a Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization meeting.

That left legislation as the last hope for toll opponents. Jeter told the editorial board Tuesday that he expected Cotham to be a primary sponsor for his Cintra bill. Cotham told the editorial board those plans changed last week.

It was then, Cotham says, that she learned Jeter’s bill wouldn’t contain language requiring NCDOT to cover damages or penalties. In a conversation the two had Thursday before appearing together on a WCNC news program, Cotham says Jeter told her that Charlotte could get stuck with most of the bill.

Jeter agrees he said that outcome was a possibility, but says he told Cotham he would do what he could to protect Charlotte. When asked Tuesday if Jeter said that, Cotham said: “No.” That conversation prompted Cotham to file her own bill.

“I don’t want room for any mischief,” she said.

That mischief could happen anyway, of course, as lawmakers can change either bill. But while Cotham’s bill makes it clear Charlotte shouldn’t be made to pay damages, Jeter’s leaves a bigger opening to lawmakers who might want to do so without blatantly reversing the intent of a bill.

All of which might be moot. Senate leader Phil Berger signaled this week that he wasn’t inclined to support any legislation canceling the Cintra contract. But Republican lawmakers, some of whom are smarting over HB 2 and Charlotte’s role in it, might not mind an opportunity to stick Charlotte with a multi-million dollar problem.

Certainly, there may be some politics going on here already. Cotham is running for the 12th Congressional District seat, and Jeter suggests she filed her own I-77 bill simply because she “doesn’t want her name attached” to anything that could hurt Charlotte. For his part, Jeter says he has “no desire” to see Charlotte penalized.

We’ve long said that the Cintra contract is riddled with flaws, but it’s the NCDOT’s contract, not Charlotte’s or Mecklenburg’s. We hope all of Mecklenburg’s delegation fights any effort to leave Charlotte holding the bill.