An advisory group that's helping the North Carolina Department of Transportation review the $650 million toll-lane project on I-77 will meet again Thursday afternoon to offer final recommendations. Some members want to cancel the deal, but it could come at a steep price.
The I-77 Express Lanes Local Advisory Group has met six times since January. It has been studying a consultant's recommendations for revising or terminating NCDOT's 50-year contract with I-77 Mobility Partners. That private company is building and will operate toll lanes on 26-miles of the congested interstate from uptown Charlotte to the Lake Norman area. Two lanes are being built in each direction from I-277 to Exit 28 in Cornelius, and one lane from there to Exit 36 in Mooresville.
Cornelius Town Board member Kurt Naas is on the advisory committee and opposes the project.
"People are saying that we're going to have some sort of a unanimous recommendation. I don't think we're going to get unanimity. I think we're going to get consensus about some pragmatic termination options on the I-77 toll contract," Naas said.
The NCDOT consultant, Mercator Advisors, suggested a range of options last fall: allowing trucks in the toll lanes; letting vehicles with two occupants ride toll-free, instead of three; and offering frequent-user discounts.
Most of the attention during the meetings has been on an option called "complete and delete." In that scenario, the contractor would finish construction, then DOT would pay off the company and eliminate the toll lanes.
The only problem: State officials say that could cost between $392 million and $623 million — plus whatever it costs for design or construction changes, which is an estimate. A formal appraisal would be needed to come up with the true cost.
Naas thinks the project's value is $150 million or even less. At the group's last meeting in April, he argued that the project's value is zero because he doesn't think the toll lanes will generate anywhere near the revenue the contractor is projecting.
Project critics are pushing yet another option, which Naas calls "complete and modify." The contract would be terminated, but one of the two toll lanes would be converted to a conventional lane. The remaining toll lane would be operated by the state.
Another question yet to be answered is the fate of $144 million in so-called "bonus allocation funds" for other local road projects in the Lake Norman area. That's money the legislature promised as an incentive in exchange for the region's acceptance of the state's first privately-built toll-lane project. Much of that money already is being spent. Officials say the law isn't clear about how the contract termination might affect those funds.
Gov. Roy Cooper has said he wants to do something about the I-77 contract by the end of the year, but it's not clear where the state would find the money to end the deal. Naas says local lawmakers tell him there's little appetite among their fellow legislators to appropriate money to buy out the contract.
The I-77 Express Lanes are due to open by year's end.
Officially, there's no date set for a decision on the contract, a DOT spokeswoman said in a statement:
"As this is an important decision at the local and state level, there is no timeline on when a decision will be made. (DOT) Secretary James Trogdon will meet with the local advisory group again sometime this summer to provide an update on the contract review process."
The Local Advisory Group meets from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday at Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce in Cornelius. The meeting is open to the public, and also will stream live on the NCDOT web page below.
NCDOT.gov web page on the I-77 project, including advisory group agendas and documents and other project details.
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