Was possibility of cancelling I-77 contract falsely reassuring?

Feb. 15. By Dave Yochum. ANALYSIS. The second meeting of the I-77 Advisory Group got under way with former Chamber Chair Mike Russell announcing that there were emergency exits on either side of a packed meeting room. “Just don’t take 77,” Chamber CEO Bill Russell interjected.

It was a touch of dark humor at the beginning of a dark meeting. It turns out it’s easy enough to cancel the 50-year contract with Cintra, but it will be profoundly  difficult to put anything different in its place.

An alphabet soup of agencies has signed off on the existing plan, which means they will have to sign off on virtually any kind of new plan. The bureaucrats, policy wonks and technocrats in agencies from the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization to the Environmental Protection Agency will again make sure that no snail darters are harmed—and that could take years.

This, for a $640 million highway contract that was executed without an economic impact study, as first reported by Business Today in June 2015.

The advisory board is just that—a group of delegates from business organizations and municipalities trying mightily to find a way to fix a contract that has been described as if it was written by Cintra itself.

But even though it could take years to really fix it, it’s better than waiting 50 years for it to end, said Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, an early critic of the toll plan which has a roadbed that will not support the tractor trailers that are so crucial to economic development and local warehouse jobs.

Commissioner Jim Puckett welcomes the crowd and introduces Mac McAlpine

Commissioner Jim Puckett 

“It is a project that has a number of major negative impacts on the region, as we start to talk about the time frame of making these changes, it is small compared to the 50 year contract…we need to talk about the impact of not changing the project on the business community here,” Puckett states.

He wants the NC Secretary of Commerce to comment on the economic impact of the congestion on I-77, which new toll lanes will apparently do nothing to alleviate.

Suffice it to say, if the grand opening  of the I77 toll lanes were held tomorrow, no elected official in his or her right mind would attend.

It’s more and more clear the project is widely perceived as a disaster in Raleigh, poorly executed from beginning to its official end when most of the bigwigs around the table will be dead.

“The I-77 tolling issue…we’ve won that argument,” declared Bill Russell, Chamber CEO. (He is not related to Mike Russell, the former chairman.) “I don’t think anyone in the room, including NCDOT and Gov. Cooper’s administration, believes that tolling is the best alternative for Lake Norman.”

It’s Lake Norman’s “Main Street,” said Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, another long-time toll fighter. She said comparing I-77 to I-40 near Raleigh was faulty in light of it being the principal artery for travel to and from schools, businesses and healthcare.

The question at hand is “how do we move forward with the contract in place when we believe the contract needs to be cancelled and we need general purpose lanes for I-77,” Russell said.

The advisory group is the single clear road toward some kind of resolution.

Convened by the governor, the group will weigh options around cancelling and replacing the contract, leaving it intact and changing the scope of work.

Cintra, of course, has no incentive to change the contract. Indeed, it’s a public-private partnership that was written in heaven.

In an epically clever move that could be a several chapters in the “Book of Shrewd Moves,” no private equity has been contributed so far.

Assurances that the public’s interest was protected by the fact that the  contract could be terminated were disingenuous, according to Kurt Naas, the original anti-toll fighter, who landed a seat on the Cornelius Town Board last year.

Kurt Naas

“The point being that what was told in court, that this is the ultimate safeguard [the right to cancel the contract] and reality are two different things,” Naas said.

The ultimate decision lies with Gov. Cooper who has the weight of the North Mecklenburg election results behind him. The normally Republican region helped vote his predecessor, Pat McCrory, out of office after only one term.

The next meeting of the advisory board is 6-8 pm Feb. 22 in the chamber meeting room. It will be open to the public, as this one was. The initial meeting was closed to the public, a possible violation of North Carolina’s Open Meetings law.

The reasoning around closing the meeting was hardly sinister. Strategies around fighting Cintra, perhaps in court, may be discussed. “We’re giving a front-row seat to Cintra to see our tactics and potential changes to the contract and allows them a chance to prepare their defense of an existing contract,” one official said, explaining that Cintra has lobbyists in Raleigh.


5 Responses to “Was possibility of cancelling I-77 contract falsely reassuring?”

  1. Great analysis Dave! I think Commissioner Puckett summed it up best when he acknowledged everyone seems to be focused on the consequences of cancelling the contract and its costs when we should be focused on what are the consequences to our quality of life and area commerce for the next 50 years if we DO NOT!

    Posted by Bill Russell | February 15, 2018, 9:24 am
  2. But wasn’t the chamber along with Tarte, Bradford et al fully behind making parts of I-77 a toll road? Listen to McCory on WBT at 9 a.m. he knows what happened. People on the town board used to laugh at Kurt Nass, when he saw the 77 toll road scam for what it is, And now we have political hustlers/hacks like Tarte and Bradford backpedaling faster then a NFL cornerback, as they try to explain away the fact that they sold out the citizens of Cornelius, The contract won’t be cancelled, and political hacks that tell the public otherwise are liars, that create false hope for the stupid.

    Posted by Rick Barton | February 15, 2018, 10:28 am
  3. The worst contract by NC Govt ever signed. The people asked for a signage delay by their town boards and county boards citing major concerns with the contract. This was ignored by McCrory’s administration and sped up.
    Let that sink in.

    Posted by Anette | February 15, 2018, 11:51 am
  4. Some folks close to the advisory group are suggesting a compromise of having one single toll lane is reasonable and better than nothing.

    NO…its not reasonable. And we better not be hearing anyone in a position of influence or authority say it is.

    Its time to kill this diseased concept, not keep it half alive.

    Posted by Nils Lucander | February 16, 2018, 4:20 pm
  5. When they try to figure out the “cost” of cancellation and the “value” of the tolls etc. … they need to keep in mind that the majority of NCians will BOYCOTT the toll lanes – whether run by CINTRA/I77 MP, other investors and/or the NCDOT … we will NEVER buy a transponder-we will NEVER use the toll lanes. NO CARS = NO PROFITS = ZERO VALUE! After CINTRA rapes the NC taxpayers for $75 MILLION (over the first 5 years) for not meeting the ridiculous projections in the CINTRA Contract, CINTRA will find this is a losing project and walk away like they did in TX, IN, etc. They will leave all of NC’s taxpayers responsible for the repayment of all the TIFIA Loans! This is a bad deal for all of NC – I urge Governor Cooper to take immediate action – Complete and Delete or Termination of the CINTRA Contract – or he will suffer the same fate as McCrory … One Term Governor!

    Posted by Jane Tarney | February 17, 2018, 10:44 am

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