Updated Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018
State Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon told Lake Norman area leaders Wednesday that the Department of Transportation cannot buy out its contract with a private company building toll lanes on I-77 north of Charlotte.
Trogdon said there are other options for dealing with concerns over the project, but toll opponents still left disappointed.
Gov. Roy Cooper and local leaders have asked the DOT to study how to cancel the 50-year, $650 million contract with I-77 Mobility Partners — a division of Spanish construction giant Cintra.
In a meeting at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce in Cornelius, Trogdon said based on costs and limits in state law, that's not possible right now.
“So my recommendations are, you know, we will not lose sight of that desire from many of the folks in the community, but we want to advance today the things that we know will have a greater probability of success in the near future,” he said.
Trogdon described a series of what he called more viable options — some of which were suggested by members of the DOT's I-77 Local Advisory Committee during the seven previous meetings this year.
None call for terminating the contract, as some opponents wanted. But Trogdon said they do address other concerns.
At the top of the list: Converting one of two planned toll lanes to a free lane between Huntersville and Cornelius. And adding one new free lane from Cornelius to Mooresville. That would leave the road with three free lanes and one toll lane through the Lake Norman area.
The DOT estimates that would cost $550 million to $800 million — a big chunk of which would pay the contractor for lost toll revenues. The money would come from existing highway funds — if the project scores high enough on the state's Strategic Transportation Improvements funding formula, or STI.
“To get to success quickly, we must focus on that which scores the highest right now,” Trogdon said. Converting one toll lane to a free lane scores well, he added.
The state spends about $900 million a year on highway projects deemed to be of statewide importance, like this one. This option could be paid for over several years.
But it wouldn't happen right away. Trogdon said it wouldn't be up for funding until next year at the earliest, and construction might not start until 2025.
Other proposed changes could happen sooner, to give commuters who use the free lanes some relief. Trogdon said that could include hardening the shoulders or adding what's called "auxiliary lanes" through the Lake Norman area, to be used at rush hour.
He also pledged to negotiate with Cintra for a cap on toll rates, frequent user discounts and to allow medium-sized trucks to use express lanes. Trucks are currently banned from the lanes.
The big problem is finding the money to pay for changes — and penalties that come with them. Trogdon said NCDOT must put the changes through its funding formula.
Critics of the I-77 project said the news was expected, though still disappointing. Most said they don't think it's right to try and fund I-77 contract changes through the STI process. Kurt Nass is a Cornelius town board member and leader of the anti-toll group "Widen I-77."
“Using STI to fix this problem is like using a hammer to drive a screw. It's the wrong tool,” Naas said. “And so an exceptional problem, which this is, needs an exceptional solution.”
To him, that exceptional solution would be an act by lawmakers to end the I-77 toll lane contract pay for widening the highway.
Republican State Senator Jeff Tarte of Cornelius said he doesn't think the funding formula should apply. Tarte tried unsuccessfully to get the legislature to fund a buyout of the contract. He now thinks the DOT should fund it as costs overrun, though he didn't say where the money might come from.
Nearly all the options Trogdon discussed Wednesday would require negotiations with the contractor. Asked after the meeting when those might begin, he said only "very quickly."
I-77 Mobility Partners did not make anyone available for an interview. Spokeswoman Jean Leier provided a statement Thursday morning: "I-77 Mobility Partners only learned yesterday afternoon of the recommendations outlined by the North Carolina Department of Transportation at the Local Advisory Group meeting. We have made significant upgrades to the project already and we are always looking for ways to enhance the customer experience. In the meantime, we remain focused on completing construction and improving the commute for a large number of motorists in the greater Charlotte and Lake Norman region when the express lanes open later this year."
Meanwhile, a new state law requires the DOT to notify the General Assembly of any plans to change the contract. Trogdon said he hopes to do that by year's end, and meet again with the advisory committee in January.
NCDOT's web page on the I-77 toll lane project, https://www.ncdot.gov/projects/i-77-express-lanes/
NCDOT.gov page on the I-77 Mobility Partners Contract review.
I-77 Mobility Partners page with project updates, construction photos and other information, https://www.i77express.com/