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House Approves Bill To Kill I-77 Tolls

I77_toll_lanes.jpg
http://www.ncdot.gov
The DOT's plan would add toll lanes to I-77 from Charlotte North to Mooresville.

Updated Thursday, 4 p.m. 

The state House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill calling on NCDOT to cancel the I-77 widening project north of Charlotte. The bill now goes to the Senate, where Senate leaders have said they don't see a need to cancel the project.

Gov. Pat McCrory and the DOT have said they're committed to the $650 million contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Spain-based Cintra. The company started grading and other work last November.

Bill co-sponsor Charles Jeter of Huntersville says the state has the right to cancel the contract because Cintra failed to disclose lawsuits over similar projects elsewhere.  

House Bill 954 passed 81-27. It also would prohibit the state from partnering with a private company on any future toll-lane projects in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties. 

Work began last November on the project, which would widen I-77 using optional toll lanes from the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte to Exit 36 in Mooresville.

Toll-lane opponents in the Lake Norman area have been pushing for canceling the contract for several years. They question both the idea of tolls and details of the contract, which they say was a bad deal for the state.

On Thursday, Jeter said a clause in the contract allows the state to cancel “with cause, ... which is my belief and others’ belief that they didn’t materially disclosed some potential and pending litigation that we think they should’ve had to disclose.”

One of the big questions about a cancellation is how much the penalties would cost the state and who would pay them.

Jeter says canceling for cause could cost the state $5 million to $10 million. The DOT says penalties could run between $80 million and $300 million.

A provision inserted into the bill Wednesday offers a partial answer to how the state would pay. The bill freezes funding for a dozen projects in the Lake Norman and north Charlotte areas. Any money saved from those projects would a reserve fund, to help cover cancellation costs.  

They include five widening projects on N.C. 73 through Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Lincoln counties; widening projects on U.S. 21 and NC 115 in north Mecklenburg; work on three interchanges in Huntersville; and improvements on Lakewood Road in north Charlotte and Hambright Road in Huntersville.  

The reserve fund would be freed up after any lawsuits over the cancelation are settled, or 10 years, whichever is sooner, under the bill.

"The projects aren't canceled, they are paused in case the cancellation fee is a worst-case scenario," Jeter said Wednesday. 

The bill also doesn’t address the other major question about a cancellation: If the state halts work on toll lanes, how will address congestion on I-77?

DOT officials have said that without the public-private partnership, I-77 wouldn’t get widened for many years, because the state lacks the money.

Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County said Cintra and its subsidiary, I-77 Mobility Partners, have put in their own money and obtained financing to complete the project in two years, he said. That’s far faster than the state could.

“Yeah we can build it, we absolutely can,” said Torbett, who voted against the cancellation bill. “We'll build the first part in five years, the second part'll be 10 years, and the third part'll be 15 years. And there'll be orange barrels up and down 77 for about 15 years.”

 

Previous story, Thursday, 9:40 a.m.

House to Vote on Bill to Kill I-77 Tolls 

A bill calling on NCDOT to cancel the I-77 widening project north of Charlotte goes up for a vote Thursday in the state House of Representatives. But approval could come with a big cost for drivers on congested roads north of Charlotte. 

A major revision introduced Wednesday freezes funding for a dozen other road projects around Lake Norman and north Charlotte, until the cost of canceling the contract is known.  They include five widening projects on N.C. 73 through Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Lincoln counties; widening projects on U.S. 21 and NC 115 in north Mecklenburg; work on three interchanges in Huntersville; and improvements on Lakewood Road in north Charlotte and Hambright Road in Huntersville.  

Bill co-sponsor Charles Jeter says some of those projects were to be funded with "bonus" money, which the DOT offered along with the state's first public-private toll lane project. 

The bill would create a "reserve fund," with any money saved from the suspended projects. That money would be freed up after any lawsuits over the cancelation are settled, or 10 years, whichever is sooner. 

"The projects aren't canceled, they are paused in case the cancellation fee is a worst-case scenario," Jeter says. 

Jeter still supports the bill.  He says the $650 million contract can be canceled because the DOT's private partner, Spain-based Cintra, failed to disclose lawsuits over similar projects elsewhere.  

The bill also would prohibit any future toll-lane projects with a private company in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties. 

House Bill 954 passed the House Transportation and Appropriations committees Wednesday, "without prejudice."  That signals lukewarm support, but sends the bill on.  Besides Jeter, its primary sponsors were Rep. John Bradford of Cornelius, and Rep. Mike Hager, who represents Burke and Rutherford Counties.

Jeter says he thinks the bill has a good chance of passing the House. If that happens, it goes next to the Senate, where leaders have said they don't see a need to cancel the project. Gov. Pat McCrory and the DOT continue to support the project. 

The bill also would appropriate $25,000 to study the cost of cancelation.  The DOT estimates penalties at between $80 million and $300 million. But Jeter says if the contract is canceled for cause, it may only be $5 million to $10 million.   

Toll-lane opponents in the Lake Norman area have protested, sued NCDOT and looked for other ways to stop the project for several years.

RELATED LINKS

See the bill text on NCleg.net

See the House schedule and listen to audio on the House Chamber Dashboard