Projected route for I-77 toll lane project north of Charlotte

Canceling the contract to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte and finishing the 26-mile project with public money would likely cost state taxpayers $640 million, the N.C. Department of Transportation revealed last week.

That’s one of several options for modifying the project or canceling the contract entirely that the I-77 toll lane advisory group heard about during a meeting on March 14. The advisory group is made up of citizens and business and political leaders from the areas affected by the toll lanes, which are currently well under construction.

Gov. Roy Cooper commissioned the advisory board to gauge public concerns about the controversial project and consider alternatives. The board, made up of about 12 people, has no official power. However, the DOT, Cooper and ultimately the N.C. General Assembly will likely give the board’s feedback substantial weight when deciding what to do next.

Cancel and complete option

The $640 million price tag would come from buying out the contractor on the project and having the state finish construction work. The 50-year contract for Cintra, a subsidiary of the Spanish infrastructure construction firm Ferrovial, included not just building the toll lanes but collecting tolls after the lanes open. If the state terminated the contract and finished the work, the state would also maintain and operate the tolls.

That option would give the state flexibility to set toll rates and peak hours, when rates are higher, rather than placing that responsibility in the hands of a private company.

“I think a huge win of this (option) is, being state-owned, is control,” John Hettwer, of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, said. “Meaning controlled by the people, because we go to the polls.”

But that the toll lanes would remain in place at all under this option, even with public ownership, was a sticking point for several in the advisory group.

“I’m always going to go back to how this would affect the people,” Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham said.

“People in this area, for years, have been upset about this, complaining about this, and they feel like they weren’t listened to by the previous governor and many of them switched their party affiliation and voted for Gov. Cooper. There are parts of Charlotte where there’s hopelessness because of poverty and crime and we’re starting to see the spread of hopelessness up here.”

Partial conversion option

Mercator Advisors, the firm contracted by the state to conduct an independent review of the contract and the options for modifying it, told the advisory group that the state could also convert one of the two toll lanes in each direction between Huntersville and Cornelius into general purpose lanes.

That would leave the contract with Cintra in place for construction and maintenance of the project, at a cost of up to $135 million.

This would not placate those who favor eliminating the tolls entirely or those who have doubts about Cintra maintaining the tolls.

Complete and delete option

Mercator said a “complete and delete” option, in which Cintra would complete construction on the project and then NCDOT would buy out the contract and convert the toll lanes into general-purpose lanes, would likely cost between approximately $400 million and $630 million, depending upon the costs of canceling loans and bonds used to fund the project and the amount needed to buy out Cintra.

“Complete and delete” has been most favored by opponents of the project. The advisory group ran out of time before discussing that option, but several members did pan the idea of offering frequent user discounts or toll credits to drivers using the express lanes.

“This falls so far short of solving the problem,” Hettwer said.

“I think, for those of us who have been communicating with our citizens for the number of years we’ve been doing this, most of us are not against the toll road. But it does not solve the true problem of this area. This project solved the wrong problem.”

What happens now

While the advisory group discusses options for changes to the toll road project, construction is ongoing on the 26-mile stretch of highway between Mooresville and Charlotte.

Should the project’s scope and scale remain unchanged, the express lanes remain scheduled to open at the end of 2018.

The $650 million project has been in the works for years, starting at the metropolitan planning organization level. But when the major changes to the interstate became public, a grassroots effort began that supported an effort to widen I-77 with public money, rather than relying on the public-private partnership the state entered into with Cintra.

Opponents have pointed to technical issues and bankruptcies at other Cintra projects across the country as rationale for buying out the N.C. Department of Transportation contract.

The advisory board is expected to meet several more times, with a more detailed discussion of the “complete and delete” option and other alternatives at its March 27 meeting. Once the advisory board’s work is complete, state officials can consider the board’s input.

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email or call 828-774-5290.

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