Raleigh, N.C. — A proposal to cancel the state contract to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 near Charlotte is picking up speed in the House.
House Bill 954 cleared two committees on Wednesday "without prejudice," meaning both panels are neutral on its content, and could be on the House floor as early as Thursday.
Legislation authorizing the toll lanes along 26 miles of I-77 in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties was approved in 2012, and the state Department of Transportation signed a $650 million contract two years ago with Spanish toll road builder Cintra. Construction on the project started late last year and was expected to be completed in 2018.
The toll road has been harshly criticized by residents and business groups near Lake Norman, who have said toll lanes are unnecessary when a smaller widening would do and have predicted the project would be a financial failure.
"What we shouldn't do is go straight from nothing to managed lanes," Rep. Jon Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, told lawmakers Wednesday.
Bradford suggested half of the length of the toll lanes isn't needed because there's no traffic congestion for 13 miles on the north end of the project. "This project addresses part of a non-problem," he said.
Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson warned lawmakers that canceling the contract, which was backed by local planners, would basically create "a moving bottleneck" for I-77 traffic as future projects try to catch up with congestion that the toll road would have addressed already.
"We go from a condition where we actually know what the future holds," Tennyson said, "to a condition where I cannot confidently say we know anything about the future.
"Nobody can give you anything but hypotheticals," he said.
Bill sponsor Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said several road improvements in Mecklenburg County that would have tied into the I-77 project, including two bridges that would have connected only to the toll lanes, would be suspended and that funding associated with them could be put into a reserve fund to pay any costs associated with canceling the contract.
"I fully believe we can cancel for cause and win, but I didn't want to roll the dice and have Durham be on the hook" for any penalties, Jeter said. "The money comes from the people who asked for it not to be built."
Jeter said the "for cause" reason to void the contract is that Cintra didn't inform the state of various lawsuits in which it was involved. If the state cannot win that argument in court, he estimated canceling "for convenience" could cost $250 million.
The eight suspended Mecklenburg County projects would later put back into DOT's system to rate projects across North Carolina and put them in priority order for funding, he said.
"We simply want to be treated like everyone else," he said. "No special treatment, no jumping the line."
Tennyson said adding those projects back into the DOT system could roil funding for Charlotte-area projects for years to come, with some ripple effects spreading across nearby counties.
Edward Curran, chairman of the state Board of Transportation, added that canceling the Cintra contract would have "a chilling effect" on future highway contracts.