Taxpayers Play Role In Sparking 'Goofy Deals' Like I-77 Tolls Contract

Aug 20, 2018

The state of North Carolina is still trying to modify the contract it signed four years ago with a Spanish company to add toll lanes to I-77 from north Charlotte to Mooresville. State officials met last week without coming up with any solutions. Meanwhile, the construction drags on and traffic backs up. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson says the whole deal was based on a flawed premise.

Look, y’all. The rules are as simple today as they were in “The Princess Bride.” Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line. And never, ever sign a long-term contract to build something that nobody wants.

I’m not completely sure that last one was in the movie. But when it comes to the toll lanes on I-77, the state of North Carolina is trying to rewrite the script. So far the state has not been able to come up with a happy ending.

That’s because the whole thing was a fantasy to begin with.

The fantasy was that the state could do a huge public works project without spending much of the public’s money. It sounded like such a great deal when the state announced it in 2014 under Gov. Pat McCrory. A Spanish company named Cintra would build the extra lanes north of Charlotte, and taxpayers would be on the hook for just $95 million of the $650 million cost. Cintra would make their money back by collecting tolls on the new lanes.

The shine wore off pretty quick when people realized two things. One, everybody hates tolls. And two, Cintra would be collecting those tolls for the next 50 years.

Fifty years! We might not even have cars in 50 years. They’ll be collecting tolls from our hovercrafts or transporter rooms or something.

But the 50-year part turns out to be an easier sell than just building toll lanes in the first place. The residents of north Mecklenburg and Iredell County are so set against tolls that they turned against McCrory in the governor’s race, one of the big reasons McCrory lost to Roy Cooper.

That didn’t help much either. Despite all the clamor for the state to break the deal with Cintra, it turns out – I hope this is not a shock – that a $650 million contract is hard to break. Jim Trogdon, the secretary of transportation, admitted last week that even making one of the two toll lanes into a free lane will take hundreds of millions of dollars. At this point, it’s almost guaranteed that none of the possible solutions are going to make anybody happy.

It’s fair to say that our state leaders have booned this doggle about as much as it could be booned. But let’s not let this go before we the people look at our own role.

Taxpayers howl and holler anytime the state thinks about raising the gas tax or any other tax that might make our infrastructure better. And people complain even louder about paying highway tolls even when they’re the ones who get the most benefit out of more lanes and less traffic.

So it forces our government to come up with these goofy deals, these public-private partnerships that tend to benefit the private a lot more than they do the public.

It’s something to think about when you have some spare time. If you need some spare time, just head on out to I-77 at rush hour. You’ll be there a while.

Tommy Tomlinson’s commentaries appear every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. They represent his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to his commentaries on WFAE’s Facebook page and wfae.org. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.