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NCDOT Shifts Gears After Texas Toll Road Trouble

John D. Simmons
Charlotte Observer

The bankruptcy filing of a Texas toll road operator this week has state transportation officials reassessing plans for toll lanes on I-77. And toll opponents jumped on the news.

Opponents who want the state to cancel plans for widening I-77 from Charlotte to Mooresville with toll lanes argue similar projects haven’t attracted the traffic and revenues expected.

That’s what happened this week when SH 130 Concession Company filed for federal bankruptcy protection in Texas. The company runs a private toll road on 41 miles of Texas Highway 130 near Austin.  And it has the same corporate parent as I-77 Mobility Partners, the NCDOT’s private contractor.  The company says the filing has no effect on the I-77 project.

  Until now, Gov. Pat McCrory and NCDOT have defended the I-77 project. But the Texas news brought a shift in tone. DOT chief Nick Tennyson addressed the state Board of Transportation Thursday morning.

The bankruptcy news in Austin came as a surprise to us, and certainly has our attention,” Tennyson said. “Governor McCrory has directed us to immediately review every available option, both legal and financial, to re-assess the I-77 Mobility Partners business model and our current contract.”

Tennyson heads to Austin Monday to question Texas officials about the Highway 130 deal.

Kurt Naas of Cornelius runs the anti-toll group Widen I-77. He says the DOT shouldn’t be surprised after warnings from debt ratings firm Moody’s and other signs.

"Moody’s downgraded them two years ago. A year ago they said they’re in technical default. The state of Texas has subsidized truck revenues. They increased the speed limit to 85 miles an hour. Why are they surprised they’ve gone bankrupt with all the help and all the red flags that have been waving?" Naas said.

By the way, that speed limit is the highest in the nation. Naas says it was a way to attract more drivers for a project that's "selling speed."

Cintra also has run into financial trouble on other toll projects. But the Texas project is a toll road, while I-77’s toll lanes will be optional.

Meanwhile, the Texas news brought more political crossfire between Governor McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper, his likely Democratic opponent in November. In an interview with WRAL-TV, Cooper called the I-77 project a boondoggle and said McCrory should cancel it.

McCrory responded Thursday by saying the attorney general was failing to take responsibility for a contract his office reviewed.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner and toll opponent Jim Puckett thinks the tide has turned.

"I’ve been optimistic all along that reason will win out over the political side of this," Puckett said. "You have to hope that wise minds will realize that this is not just a process and a policy and a procedure that works under these economic times."

Puckett thinks the Texas case offers the best opportunity yet for the state to rethink its I-77 widening plans.