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N.C. Toll Road Authority Gets Tentative Approval In Senate

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The General Assembly took another step toward speeding up highway construction when the Senate voted to create a state toll road authority.

But the chamber doesn't want to accelerate as fast as the House in creating pay-to-drive roads, instead limiting to two the number of projects that can be completed by the authority. A House version approved last year set no limit.

State deputy transportation secretary David King said he would be happy somewhere in between.

``The fact is to get two done in the next five to ten years, you probably need to be planning more than two in case some don't work out,'' King said after the Senate gave the authority tentative approval Wednesday. ``We would like to have that raised ... toward five or six.''

The proposed North Carolina Turnpike Authority would be given the power to build and operate a road, bridge or tunnel projects in which motorists would have to pay on a per-drive basis.

One of the projects is required to serve part of Mecklenburg County; the other would be built elsewhere.

State transportation officials have said an authority will help build roads faster than the Department of Transportation can, in part by generating additional money through tolls. DOT hopes to have projects in place in the next decade.

Sen. Wib Gulley, a bill supporter, called the authority a ``careful, limited, crafted option'' that will provide additional dollars to pay for needed roads in congested areas.

``We have extraordinary pressing needs for transportation ... in our state,'' Gulley, D-Durham, said before the chamber approved the idea by a vote of 39-6.

The Senate approved the bill with little debate. The House spent months debating a similar authority bill before approving one last October that placed no limits on how many projects could be completed.

A final Senate vote wasn't expected before next week. The House would have to decide whether to back the Senate bill or try to hammer out a compromise. The bill sponsor, Rep. Jim Crawford, D-Granville, said he would like to see the two-project limit removed.

In both bills, the turnpike authority would have the power to issue revenue bonds to pay for projects and condemn private land for their highways. Toll revenue would pay off the bonds. Toll booths could not be placed on existing roads.

The authority would work with Department of Transportation and private companies in building and operating projects. But the authority would stand alone to borrow money for road building without risking the state's credit.

Opponents are concerned because both versions allow some authority operation and project development expenses to be paid with money from the Highway Trust Fund, which is used to build urban loops and intrastate highways and to pave secondary roads.

``We really think there's a crisis of confidence,'' said Tom Crosby with AAA Carolinas in Charlotte. He said a majority of club members surveyed are opposed to tolls.

One possible project for the authority is a proposed 17-mile toll road bridge from I-485 near Charlotte/Douglas International Airport west over the Catawba River through Gaston County to Kings Mountain.

The state's other recent foray into toll roads hasn't worked out as planned.

In 2000, the General Assembly approved one toll road project that had to be financed with private money, but that was put on hold because the contractor said it would cost too much money to complete.

The Senate version creates a nine-member authority board of directors appointed by legislative leaders and the governor. The House has a seven-member board, with six appointed by the governor. The transportation secretary would be on the board in both versions.

Some House members and AAA Carolinas have complained the legislation doesn't require toll booths be automatically removed on a road when that byway's bonds are paid off.

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