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I-77 Construction Begins, But Toll Debate Persists

I-77 Express lanes video capture.

Drivers will have to deal with construction for a while in addition to the regular rush-hour backups on I-77 north of Charlotte. Work began Monday night on a 3-year, $648 million project to widen a 26-mile section of the road with toll lanes.

And if you’ve been following the debate on this project, you know it’s very controversial. Even as construction begins, opponents are fighting to halt it. WFAE’s David Boraks joins All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey now.

Mark Rumsey: First David – a quick recap of this project:

David Boraks: The DOT has contracted with a private company called I-77 Mobility Partners to add two lanes in both directions between I-277 in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius, and one lane between there and Exit 36 in Mooresville. It’s a subsidiary of a Spanish company called Cintra.

The company is paying most the cost of construction. But in return it gets to charge tolls for 50 years.  

Not everyone has to pay the toll. Vehicles with at least three people would be free, as would motorcycles and public buses. Toll rates haven’t been finalized, but they will vary, depending on demand. The idea is for rates to be higher when traffic is heavy, and lower when toll traffic is light. The CEO of Mobility Partners has said rates could change every five minutes, and vary from $1 to $4 to drive a 10-mile stretch.

MR: Is there a minimum speed that must be maintained in the lanes?

DB: Yes, 45 miles per hour.

Of course, that means traffic in the other lanes probably will be slower at rush hour. One of the criticisms has been that the toll lanes will go unused - that nobody will want to pay the price. But with similar projects elsewhere, that’s not always the case. People are using these kinds of lanes. And don’t forget, the contractor also needs to make money to pay off the project - if the tolls are higher than anyone will pay, they’ll have to lower them to a point some drivers will accept.

But opponents – and they’re both Democrats and Republicans - aren’t convinced.

On Friday, I talked to Cynthia Underwood, a Cornelius business owner  and Republican …

"It’s not going to solve our traffic problems. It’s going to make it worse. At this point in time, we need two general purpose lanes. "

I spoke to her at a press conference where Lake Norman area lawmakers called on Governor McCrory to terminate the contract and consider a smaller widening project without toll lanes.

MR: What hope do they have, if the contract is signed and construction has started?

DB: Well, probably very little, but they are pinning their hopes on a list of complaints - from what they call “substandard” pavement, the state’s potential liability for debts, and possible pain for local businesses. They’ve also repeated claims by one opponent that the company failed to disclose legal troubles elsewhere when it applied for the job.

Here’s state Representative Charles Jeter, of Huntersville:

“So we believe that the governor and more apt, the NCDOT - which we put as an extension of the governor, is the best and perhaps the only remedy.”

Well, that didn’t happen. McCrory responded pretty quickly, saying it wasn’t up to him, and that any request to cancel the contract would have to come from the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which originally approved the project. That’s a group of elected officials from around the region, and they’ve consistently voted in favor of NCDOT road plans that include the toll project.

MR: One of the state’s selling points for the I-77 widening is that most of it would be paid for by private investors, not the state. But I understand lawmakers say that may not be true?

DB: The NCDOT would put in about $94 million, and it’s also committed to paying up to $75 million more - $12 million a year - if toll revenues fall short. But the legislators say it could be far more … as much as the entire debt on the project …. if the company fails.

The DOT says that’s not true and that nothing has changed. In case of a bankruptcy or default, the state wouldn’t have to repay Cintra and other investors, and they couldn’t sue. That’s because all the debt on the project is backed not by the state and taxpayers, but by toll revenues.

The investors then would have to find someone else to run the toll road so they could continue to receive the toll revenues.

MR. What other steps are opponents taking in the coming weeks?

DB: First, there’s still a pending lawsuit filed by the group Widen I-77. A judge has denied a request for a temporary injunction to stop the project. A hearing is scheduled for January in that case.

And two more things stand out. House Speaker Tim Moore says he will appoint a special committee in the coming weeks to study the toll lane project.

And Representative Jeter is organizing what he’s calling an “I-77 summit” with local leaders and state officials Monday morning at Cornelius Town Hall. He told me DOT Secretary Nick Tennyson will be there, and the Lake Norman Chamber present alternatives it’s been studying.

MR: Could this issue have broader repercussions, beyond the I-77 project?

DB: Absolutely. Anti-toll voters in the Lake Norman area helped unseat the mayor and two town board members in Huntersville. And that puts pressure on other elected officials.  And this won’t just be an issue in the Lake Norman area. State officials say toll lanes could be used to help pay for widening I-77 and I-485 in south Charlotte and US 74 from uptown to Matthews.