RALEIGH – Gov. Pat McCrory sent a letter Monday to the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization asking, once and for all, whether they stand behind their original approval of the I-77 toll lanes project. The letter follows months of vocal opposition to the project. The project has been in the works since 2007, originating with a request from the CRTPO, a planning group empowered by the federal government to make transportation decisions for the region.
“This letter was necessary because there have been repeated calls for the governor to act unilaterally in this case,” said N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson. “He is committed to transportation planning originating from local authority. Before he acts unilaterally he wants to know if the local authority has decided to change course.”
Bob Cooke, secretary of the CRTPO confirmed that the board had received McCrory’s letter Monday afternoon but had no comment at this point. He expects that the matter will be taken up at the CRTPO’s next regular meeting on Jan. 20.
If the board says it does still support the project, it answers months of vocal opponents filling public meetings, drumming up news coverage, and protesting in Raleigh. They are also launching ad campaigns against elected officials who do not agree with them. Opposition even prompted one former N.C. House member, Robert Brawley, to launch a primary bid against McCrory over the I-77 toll lanes.
Opponents say that the project costs drivers too much money and leaves the state with few options during the 50 years of the public-private partnership contract with Cintra, a worldwide transportation construction company.
If the board says it no longer supports the I-77 toll lanes, NCDOT heads back to the drawing board on four Charlotte-area projects and owes Cintra the money it has spent to date and a negotiated rate on the loss of project.
Some say cancelling a project of this size is unprecedented and estimate that cost to be close to $100 million. Where that money would come from is an open question. Plus, any traffic relief would be in the distant future, rather than new lanes, some with tolls, which would open in 2019 under the current plan.
Supporters want the CRTPO to stand by the project, saying it gives travelers and taxpayers the most bang for the buck, opening the lanes within three years and costing the state relatively little for such a huge project. With groundbreaking due in 2016, McCrory and Tennyson want another firm, local buy-in before they go any further.
How did we get here?
Planning for a solution to Charlotte traffic congestion relief started in 2007 with the Fast Lanes study at the request of what was then known as the MUMPO, now the CRTPO. The group requested that the NCDOT prepare a long-term transportation plan after I-77 southbound was widened from eight lanes to 10 lanes and within seven years became congested again.
“Fast Lanes happened when I-77 south of Charlotte went from an eight lane parking lot to a ten lane parking lot. We were asked what we can do to get a solution that lasts more than 10 years,” said Tennyson.
The state studied the region’s traffic flow and similar projects in other states and came up with four projects to work in cooperation to ease traffic in the long term.
In an effort to get the project moving, the state looked at using an area property or sales-tax increase, opting instead for a public-private partnership that uses tolls. They studied similar projects in other states that used the system for big ticket projects, such as this 26-mile stretch of I-77 north of Charlotte. Currently, NCDOT officials estimate that there are approximately $70 billion in transportation projects on the state’s priority list, with just under $2 billion to put toward them. Finding new ways to finance the projects has become a priority.
In this case, Cintra bid and won the I-77 project, signing the contract this past summer. It allows them to recoup nearly $650 million in building and road maintenance expenses by tolling the lanes during peak times for the next 50 years. The lanes that are currently free and non-HOV would remain that way, but get relief from those who move to another lane, opting to pay a toll or ride with three or more people in their car.
In 2013, the new Strategic Transportation Initiative was signed into law to restructure the way transportation projects across the state were prioritized. The I-77 toll lanes were already far along in the planning process, so it was not a part of the new project list. To include it now could have moved it to the back of the line.
In 2015, McCrory’s Connect NC bond proposal was passed, signed into law and will go before voters March 15. Toll lane opponents have proposed cancelling the Cintra contract and pulling the money out of the bond. Bond supporters are concerned that a regional project of that magnitude might not sit well with voters statewide and sink the bond, taking with it monies for projects in 74 counties.
The fine print
During the 50 years of tolls, if the state of North Carolina decides to make changes to that portion of road which affect Cintra’s ability to recoup that money — say the state adds another free lane to the toll lane stretch — the state owes Cintra for lost revenue. If the state makes improvements on adjacent area roads it does not owe Cintra. There are currently state improvement plans in the works for roads running parallel to I-77.
If Cintra were to default on the project during the 50 years, as some opponents fear, the state of North Carolina takes over the management and maintenance costs, using tolls to recoup its expenses.
Pressure on the CTRPO members to end their support for the project has been intense. Several area municipalities have passed resolutions opposing the project, and area businesses have vehemently opposed it in public comment meetings. However most board members say privately that they believe a majority of residents want a solution to the gridlock on I-77 and in the meetings.
If tolls are the answer to get things moving quickly, they believe most residents will be behind it. Whether or not the CTRPO board members vote to stick with the project on Jan. 20 remains to be seen, but according to NCDOT, projects like this one across the country saw similar fights.
“In every case there is a there is a period when this kind of dispute happens,” said Tennyson. “Ultimately this is a strategy because other choices are constrained by cost, geography or because additional general purpose lanes are just filling up as quickly as they are built.”