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State Senate Passes Bill To Double Funds For I-77 Toll Buyout, But House Fails To Concur

An aerial view shows toll lane construction on I-77 at I-277 near uptown Charlotte.

Updated 11:40 p.m.
North Carolina lawmakers will have to iron out their differences on how to pay for a buyout or changes to the NCDOT's controversial contract for toll lanes on I-77 near Charlotte. That's after the House late Thursday failed to concur on Senate changes to a House transportation bill. 

Earlier Thursday, the Senate adopted its own version, to provide up to $620 million for the buyout or changes. That was nearly double the amount in a House version of the bill, which passed Wednesday. Because the House failed to go along, the bill now goes to a conference committee, state Rep. John Bradford (R-Cornelius) said late Thursday. He wasn't sure when that would happen. 

The Senate bill also gives Gov. Roy Cooper and NCDOT a deadline of Oct. 15 to cancel or change the 50-year, $650 million contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a unit of Spanish construction giant Cintra. 

The company is in the midst of building toll lanes on 26 miles of the congested interstate between Charlotte and Mooresville. The project calls for adding two lanes in both directions between Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius, and one lane between Cornelius and Mooresville. 

"I'm excited," state Sen. Jeff Tarte (R-Cornelius) said Thursday night, after Senate passage.  "If people are serious about killing tolls, now we have a way to do it." 

A key sticking point between the two houses is where to get the money for a buyout or changes to the contract.

The toll-lane buyout funds are included in House Bill 1029, a broader bill that has a collection of transportation-related items. It was approved Wednesday by the House.  

In the Senate version, the $620 million would be borrowed from other funds designated for highway projects in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties.  It would have to be paid back over time, Tarte said. 

It's different from the House version, which proposed paying off those funds from the Highway Trust Fund and Highway Fund. Tarte said General Assembly lawyers determined that it would be illegal to use those funds to pay for penalties or settlements like canceling the I-77 contract.

The bill moved quickly Thursday from the rules committee to the full Senate, which adopted the amendment proposed by Tarte. 

Even before the Senate vote, it's wasn't clear if the House will go along with the Senate's changes. "I have concerns about the House concurring with the new language," State Rep. John Bradford (R-Cornelius) said earlier Thursday night. He has been a primary backer of the House version.

The contract was signed in 2014 during the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory. Gov. Cooper has said if he had been governor at the time, he would not have signed it. More recently, he has pledged to look for a way to fix it. 

The Oct. 15 deadline for NCDOT action comes just a few weeks before the November elections, which includes members of the statehouse.  

Transportation Secretary James Trogdon has said he expects to make a decision by late July. 

An NCDOT spokeswoman said the department is watching the legislation closely, and provided a statement:

"NCDOT continues to work with communities along the corridor to seek options that respond to the concerns of the people in Northern Mecklenburg County, but at the same time do not negatively impact the transportation priorities of other communities. We are closely following all proposed legislation. This amendment could have additional modifications. Once legislation becomes law, NCDOT will be able to analyze impacts."



See the Senate amendment from Sen. Jeff Tarte at NCLeg.net

Follow developments on House Bill 1029 on NCLeg.net

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.