I have followed the controversy surrounding the I-77 toll road as an interested citizen. I have not read the Cintra contract, but have relied mostly on news accounts as to what is in it. There are elements of the project that concern me, such as the fact that there will be only one toll lane each way in the northern part of the project, and one could get stuck behind an accident with no second lane for controlled bypassing. South of Cornelius it won’t be such a problem, since there will be two toll lanes each way. The 50-year clause is also problematic, but the state could still build needed free lanes if Cintra is compensated for lost revenue.
It is not surprising the state would have to pay $100 million or more to Cintra if the contract is cancelled. It’s a standard clause in business agreements that each side is protected by serious compensation if the other side cancels without mutual consent. Cintra has already had major expenses for internal planning, engineering and design. Cancellation by the state would entitle Cintra to seek damages in court, and that penalty might well exceed $100 million.
This has led me to the conclusion that if the political effort to force cancellation were to succeed, it would exact much worse pain on those of us in the I-77 corridor than will the issues some have with the toll road contract. First of all, who will pay the $100 million or more to the contractor? Some think Gov. Pat McCrory can just cancel it, but he cannot pay that kind of money without authorization from the General Assembly. From my experience, legislators from other parts of North Carolina would have no sympathy with Charlotte, Mecklenburg, Iredell, the corridor towns, and our region for asking for a big toll road project and then making it such a hot political potato that it cost the state $100 million or more with nothing to show for it. Would they approve new funds for I-77? No chance.
There’s another problem. The General Assembly provided substantial bonus funding to reward regions that accept projects that require no tax financing. Our region’s bonus is $143 million for improvements to US-21, NC-115, NC-150, several I-77 interchanges, and other needed projects. By law, contract cancellation will automatically forfeit those extra funds for our area and those bonus projects will be defunded.
I read where my friend Attorney General Roy Cooper said he would not have signed the contract. Even though all of our local governments were for it then? Notice he did not say it should be cancelled. He would have an even better campaign issue if McCrory were to cancel it. That would enrage far more voters across the state than those in our area.
Very few objected to the toll road proposal until after it was signed, including me. It seems we are now stuck with it. It’s over except for political tremors. Let’s move on and hope that enough of us will use it, and relieve the congestion in the free lanes. The more the merrier, especially since access will be free to carpools and buses.
Martin was governor of North Carolina from 1985 to 1993.