State legislation to fund a possible buyout or changes to the North Carolina Department of Transportation's I-77 toll lane project near Charlotte has died. That's according to state Sen. Jeff Tarte (R-Cornelius), who wrote a key amendment to provide the funding.
Both the House and Senate last week adopted versions of a transportation bill that included money to pay what could be millions of dollars in penalties and other costs if the state cancels or changes the contract. But the House failed to concur with the Senate version, which called for repaying the money from funds previously designated for other road projects in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties.
Legislative leaders have appointed a conference committee to negotiate a compromise. But Tarte said Tuesday he doesn't expect the committee to meet. That means the bill won't be taken up before the General Assembly adjourns next week.
Tarte wrote a Senate amendment that would have provided up to $620 million dollars toward contract changes or a buyout. But the House didn't agree to the change.
"The whole issue is everybody's taking care of their own districts, and their own sets of projects," Tarte said. "Even within our DOT division, you can't get everyone to agree that I-77 is the most important road project in the state.
Toll-lane opponents like Cornelius business owner John Hettwer are disappointed. He leads the I-77 Business Plan, which believes the toll lanes will hurt the Lake Norman-area economy. Hettwer said he thinks the legislative maneuvering wasn't helpful. But he did see a bright spot.
"I think at the end of the day when we look at what happened in the past week, is that we had the House 112 to 0 say this needs to get fixed. And the Senate passed a different bill that unanimously said this needs to get fixed," Hettwer said. "So the positive thing that came out of all of this, though we didn't get a bill into law, everybody in the legislature is saying it's gotta be fixed. Everybody in the governor's mansion is saying it's gotta be fixed."
Hettwer was among the members of an NCDOT advisory group that met this spring to evaluate options for the toll contract. A majority of members ended up backing a proposal to convert one of two planned toll lanes to a free lane, and to turn over operation of the toll lanes to the DOT. The big question, and the reason for the legislation, is how to pay any penalties or costs to do that.
Hettwer said he's still optimistic. He's now waiting to hear what N.C. Transportation Secretary James Trogdon decides to do. Trogdon has said he expects to make a decision in late July. And he's also exploring possible funding sources from within the NCDOT budget.
NCDOT has contracted with a private company, I-77 Mobility Partners, to widen I-77 with toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville. Construction started in 2015 and the company says it expects to open the toll lanes by the end of this year.
See the text of the bill, including amendments with I-77-related funding, on NCLeg.net