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Mecklenburg Commissioners Side With Towns Asking For I-77 Toll Road Project Delay

Tom Bullock/WFAE News

Mecklenburg County commissioners resoundingly approved a resolution Tuesday urging Gov. Pat McCrory and the state’s transportation department to delay by 90 days next week’s closing of a financial contract to build toll lanes on Interstate 77.

The resolution, approved 8-0, said the board lacks “assurance” that the state’s agreement with the developer, I-77 Mobility Partners, “is proper and appropriate ... in the transparency and integrity of NCDOT’s contracting process.” Commissioner Dumont Clarke excused himself from the vote because his law firm may represent a party in the project.

The vote took place before a crowded chamber of people, mostly from northern Mecklenburg, who came to speak against the project. They said they’d received little information from the state and urged commissioners to tell McCrory to put the brakes on it until they get answers.

Commissioner Jim Puckett, a Republican who sponsored the resolution, said he got involved in the issue because the state wasn’t being upfront with his constituents. “Let’s call time-out and let’s talk about where we are today,” Puckett said.

Tuesday, the state DOT released a press release saying it had finalized the loan process and that the region could lose as much as $100 million if the contract was canceled because the money would go to other projects in the state.

Some in the crowd said the state was employing scare tactics.

Puckett said the project doesn’t solve future congestion.

“Mecklenburg County is promoting itself as a hub for intermodal transportation,” he said in an interview. “We’re inviting an increase in ground transportation – and this project bottlenecks and threatens to undo that.”

Last week, McCrory said he wouldn’t delay the project, adding he’s giving the towns what they’ve advocated for years.

Puckett said that would be unwise. “They haven’t told the towns the truth,” he said. “Now that they’ve seen what it will look like, everybody thinks it’s a bad idea.”

Ignoring the call for the delay could have political implications – particularly for McCrory, he said.

“There are a million and a half people in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties,” Puckett said in the interview. “If you ignore their wishes, you do so at your own political peril.”

Tuesday’s vote followed similar resolutions by Cornelius, Huntersville, Mooresville and Davidson that came after opponents found a surprise 50-year non-compete clause included in the final contract. After the toll lanes are completed in 2018, the DOT would have to pay the developer compensation if it builds new free lanes on the highway.

In fall 2013, local transportation planners added a project to widen I-77 from roughly Huntersville to Mooresville to a long-range transportation plan. Construction would begin in 15 to 25 years. But in January 2014, the non-compete clause was changed to exclude widening with free lanes.

That caught commissioners and the towns off-guard.

The towns want an independent review of the agreement’s conditions during the 90-day delay. The commissioners want that and the governor and DOT to explore other funding sources to widen the interstate – including a possible state bond referendum to finance transportation projects.

One by one, commissioners criticized the state for not being upfront.

Board Chairman Trevor Fuller said he’s not “conceptually” opposed to toll roads, but grew increasingly concerned about the project the more he heard about it – particularly about the non-compete clause. He called it “insanity” for the state to “tie its hands for 50 years.”

“It’s at least reasonable to stop and think about what we’re doing,” Fuller said.

Steve Harrison contributed to this article.