House tells I-77 toll road contractor to hit the road

Posted June 2, 2016

A proposal to cancel the state contract to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 near Charlotte is picking up speed in the House.

— The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to rescind a $650 million contract to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 near Charlotte.

Following the 80-28 vote, House Bill 954 moves to the Senate. Gov. Pat McCrory previously declined to cancel the contract with Spanish toll road builder Cintra.

The 26-mile project in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties has been harshly criticized by residents and business groups near Lake Norman, who have said toll lanes are unnecessary when a smaller widening by the state Department of Transportation would do and have predicted the toll project would be a financial failure.

"This is a bad business deal for an exorbitant cost," said Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, noting that studies have shown the toll lanes would reduce congestion on I-77 by only 5 percent.

"We brought a bazooka to a knife fight," said Rep. John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, noting that there is no congestion on the northern half of the 26-mile stretch.

Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, tried to tack an amendment onto the bill that would preclude any future toll roads in North Carolina, but House Speaker Tim Moore ruled it out of order.

"We should stop throwing good money after bad and learn from our mistakes," Pittman said, urging colleagues to rescind the contract.

Reps. John Torbett, R-Gaston, and Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, who co-chair the House Transportation Committee, said ending the toll road project would leave the region with no plan to address I-77 traffic congestion now and into the future.

"It's easy to take a 'no to this' or a 'no to that' perspective, especially when you have no solutions, no alternatives, no fixes to provide," Torbett said.

He called the toll project "quite a bargain," saying the state was getting a $650 million road for about half the price in only two years.

Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson also warned Wednesday against canceling the contract without another plan in place.

Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said the toll project would effectively block the DOT from ever adding non-toll lanes to I-77 because of the expense and review time building bridges across Lake Norman would entail.

Jeter said he believes the contract can be ended "for cause" with no financial penalty because 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.

House Bill 954 calls for suspending eight road projects in Mecklenburg County that would have tied into the I-77 project, including two bridges that would have connected only to the toll lanes. Funding associated with those projects could be put into a reserve fund to pay any costs associated with canceling the contract.


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