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Politics

I-77 Toll Opponents Seek 'Pause' in Lawsuit

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David Boraks
/
WFAE
Opponents of toll lanes on I-77 listens to Kurt Naas, the leader of anti-toll group Widen I-77, speak at Wednesday's press conference.

The battle over toll lanes on I-77 north of Charlotte took an unexpected twist today Wednesday when opponents asked a judge to put their lawsuit on hold - two days before the case is to begin. But they say this isn’t the end of their fight.

The anti-toll group Widen I-77 filed suit a year ago to halt the NCDOT’s $650 million plan to widen I-77, which includes optional toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville. The group argued the state’s contract with Spanish construction giant Cintra is unconstitutional, and could lead to unreasonably high tolls and runaway costs.

Last March, a state judge refused the group's request to temporarily halt the project, and construction on I-77 began in November.  Now, with political momentum building against tolls, opponents want to put their suit on hold. 

Widen I-77 Leader Kurt Naas said his group prefers a political solution. 

"This is in no way indicative and should not be taken as a matter of we feel either less or more certain of our ability to prevail in this case," he said at a Cornelius Town Hall press conference . "We believe we have a strong legal case and we will present that case as we feel necessary."

Naas said Gov. Pat McCrory created “chaos” by demanding a new vote on the toll issue at the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, or CRTPO. He wants the governor and DOT to cancel the contract with Cintra. 

"This also spotlights the confusion and chaos caused by Governor McCrory’s letter, asking the CRTPO, the Charlotte Regional Transportation Organization, to perform an unnecessary and un-required vote on the subject. In fact, the governor has the authority to cancel the contract and in their legal brief, North Carolina Department of Transportation has stated, NCDOT has in its sole discretion, authority to terminate the contract at any time," Naas said. 

CRTPO is scheduled to vote Jan. 20. Charlotte City Council, which has supported toll lanes in the past, controls nearly half the votes on CRTPO. The council could decide as early as Monday, Jan. 11, how its representative will vote.

Naas thinks there aren’t enough votes on the board to overturn the toll policy if Charlotte doesn’t change its vote. 

"We repeat our request to the Charlotte City Council on behalf of thousands of citizens here and a growing contingent of their citizens in Charlotte, to please give us the opportunity to present our point of view on this critical issue," he said. 

Republican gubernatorial candidate and toll opponent Robert Brawley was at the press conference. He said Widen I-77 is right to delay its suit.

"It is in the political realm. I do think (Widen) I-77 is making a wise choice now. Having been in the General Assembly, there were a lot of times we avoided issues that were in court. … I think it’s a good thing. Let the process take its place," Brawley said. 

If a judge doesn’t grant the request, arguments will begin Friday morning at Superior Court in Charlotte. 

THURSDAY UPDATE:

The NCDOT and its contractor did not comment on the Widen I-77 motion Wednesday afternoon. In the motion, Widen I-77 lawyer Matt Arnold says he has talked to lawyers for the DOT and I-77 Mobility Partners, and they oppose the motion.

Arnold and Widen I-77 will be at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse Friday morning at 10am for a hearing before Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith III.  Smith is expected to rule on the motion to delay the case then.