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Charlotte Area News

Judge Rejects Lawsuit Seeking To Halt I-77 Tolls

T. Ortega Gaines
Charlotte Observer
Judge W. Osmond Smith III ruled against Widen I-77, ending the lawsuit, unless the group appeals.

A lawsuit filed last year to stop the toll lane project on I-77 ended Friday when a judge rejected claims that the contract is unconstitutional. Toll opponents now hope they can win a political fight to halt the project.

Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith issued his ruling from the bench after two hours of arguments. He said it’s “not the function or duty of the court” to halt the project.  

“These are policy decisions within the authority or purview of the General Assembly and the Department of Transportation,” Smith said.

The citizens group Widen I-77 sued the NCDOT and its private contractor a year ago.  The group’s leader, Kurt Naas says it’s too early to say if they’ll appeal.

“We as a group are going to meet and discuss what our next legal options are,” Naas said. But clearly we have several other venues in front of us ... and maybe that’s what the judge was pointing to - that those are the more appropriate venues and that’s where our focus should be.”

Those venues include the Charlotte City Council and the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO), which both have votes on the toll issue coming up.

The council will decide Monday how to direct its representative to CRTPO to vote. 

Widen I-77 had challenged the constitutionality of both the state law allowing public-private partnerships, and the DOT’s contract with I-77 Mobility Partners - a subsidiary of Spanish construction giant Cintra. They worry the 50-year deal could lead unreasonably high tolls and runaway costs.

Earlier in Friday's hearing, the judge declined Widen I-77's request to pause the case.

Mitchell Karlin, a lawyer for I-77 Mobility Partners, welcomed the end of the suit.

"We’re very pleased with the outcome and very gratified with the judge’s remarks. We look forward to completing the project and having the citizens of the state benefit from it for many years to come," he said.

The NCDOT said in a statement it “appreciates” the judge’s decision, and now is awaiting the outcome of the two local votes.  It warned that if the project is canceled, it could cost between 82 million and 300 million dollars in penalties. The area would have to re-do its long-range transportation plans, and it would lose 145 million dollars in bonus transportation funds the DOT has promised.

Work began in November to add optional toll lanes on 26 miles of I-77 from the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte, to Exit 36 in Mooresville. It’s the first project of its kind in North Carolina to use a private company to build and operate toll lanes.

In another development on the I-77 project, contractor I-77 Mobility Partners said it has added three entrance/exit points for the toll lanes, near I-77 Exit 23 and 25 in Huntersville and Exit 28 in Cornelius. And it shifted the locations of access points at the southern end of the project, closer to I-77 and I-277.

The DOT says the toll lanes should be complete in 2018. Drivers will be able use the lanes for a fee, which will rise and fall according to the amount of traffic. The contract requires the lanes to maintain a speed of at least 45mph.  Tolls would be charged using radio transponders that drivers purchase in advance.

Not everyone will have to pay the toll. The lanes will be free for commuter buses and emergency vehicles as well as carpoolers with at least three passengers. Motorcycles also will ride free.  More about the project is at http://www.i77express.com/