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Lawmakers Seek To Undo 'Roadblocks' To Revising I-77 Tolls Contract

State lawmakers from the Charlotte area have filed a bill they say would remove legal "roadblocks" to re-negotiating the contract for toll lanes on Interstate 77.

Those roadblocks are two provisions that Republicans added to the 2018-19 state budget bill. One requires the governor to notify the legislature 60 days before canceling or changing the $670 million contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Spanish construction giant Cintra. The other says the governor must get legislative approval for any financial penalties or settlements.

State Sen. Natasha Marcus said lawmakers specifically targeted the I-77 project in the budget bill.   

[Related Content: NCDOT Continues To Study Options In I-77 Toll Lanes Project]

"It addresses this contract and this contact only. And specifically takes away the governor's authority to renegotiate or find funds to renegotiate this contract," Marcus said at a press conference Monday near I-77 in Cornelius.

Marcus was surrounded by toll opponents carrying signs like "Tolls R Bad 4 Business" and "Cintra Sucks Money Out of the Economy." With her were Rep. Christy Clark and Rep. Chaz Beasley, both Mecklenburg County Democrats, and Vickie Sawyer, a Republican state senator from Iredell County.

The four lawmakers say they still have a lot of work to do to convince legislative leaders to support the bill, specifically state Senate Leader Phil Berger.

One local official at the event was Cornelius town Commissioner Kurt Naas, who founded the anti-toll group Widen I-77. He said he supports any efforts to cancel the contract.

Asked if he's confident in this bill's chances, he said: "No." Then, after a long pause that left reporters hanging, he pointed a finger at Berger: "Unless we change the leadership in the state Senate, that's where the roadblock is."

Beasley said he's worried the state could end up owing money on the privately-funded project if the contractor defaults on its debt.

"What we're also trying to make sure is that we stop this project before it becomes more expensive for the people of North Carolina," said Beasley, who announced last week that he's running for lieutenant governor.

The I-77 Express Lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville have been under construction for four years. Two lanes in both directions will run between the Brookshire Freeway (I-277) in Charlotte to Exit 28 in Cornelius, and one lane in both directions will run between Cornelius to Mooresville.

Contractor I-77 Mobility Partners has said the northern section from I-485 north to Mooresville will open later this spring. The lanes between I-485 and uptown Charlotte are supposed to open by the end of October.  

An advisory group of Lake Norman business and elected leaders has urged the North Carolina Department of Transportation to cancel or change the contract. One idea is to convert one toll lane to a free lane.

NCDOT officials already have begun negotiations on other, less significant changes. Those include allowing trucks to use the toll lanes and creating a toll rebate program for frequent users.  The DOT hopes to submit those proposed changes to the legislature this summer.   

State officials have estimated it could cost millions of dollars to alter anything in the contract that reduces the contractor's revenues, and hundreds of millions of dollars to cancel it entirely.   The House and Senate both passed versions of a bill last June to pay for canceling the contract, but it died when they couldn't agree on differences.  

The toll lanes will be managed by the N.C. Turnpike Authority, a division of NCDOT. In a statement Monday, spokeswoman Carly Olexik said: “We will follow this bill as it moves through the process. In the meantime, we will remain focused on improving this contract to respond to the needs of the people of north Mecklenburg County.”


House Bill 441 (also Senate Bill 348) on www.ncleg.gov

2018-19 state Budget Bill on NCLeg.gov (See section 34.11, "Comprehensive Agreement Cancellation or Modification.")

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.