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I-77 toll controversy highlights worries about clout in Raleigh

I-77 toll controversy highlights worries about clout in Raleigh

By Dave Vieser. With Pat McCrory’s election in 2012 and Republicans holding a majority in the state legislature, things seemed to be looking up for Lake Norman. With a strong GOP lineup came expectations of increased help from Raleigh for critical infrastructure needs, especially in the transportation spectrum.

Two years later, town boards around Lake Norman, as well as Iredell and Mecklenburg county commissions, have passed resolutions calling for a delay of the DOT’s I-77 toll lane project, and people locally are up against what seemed to be a locally grown governor who is viewing events through a statewide lens.

McCrory’s refusal in May to hold up the contract signing for the I-77 toll lanes—the “its’ too late” response which went viral—inflamed the situation. Some local officials suspect he may not have had all the facts. “I’m concerned that all of this new information surfacing in recent weeks, most importantly the Virginia termination news, has not gotten to his desk yet,” said Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy, the founder of Scale Finance.

Gilroy is referring to the fact that the Virginia DOT recently announced that it will terminate Cintra’s $1.4-billion design-build contract to build a 55-mile limited-access highway in southeast Virginia.

Gilroy also suspects that the NCDOT “filters and spins everything the governor hears.”

On the county level, Commissioner Jim Puckett, also a Republican, asked the governor to call a 90-day timeout. “Its’ not unlike a guy who has been falsely accused of murder asking for a pardon from the governor.”

Whether fair or not, McCrory could indeed bear the political brunt of the toll road project should it be built. “We can’t blame him for the fact that that I-77 should have been widened 15-plus years ago” said Cornelius Commissioner Woody Washam. “But, he will be held accountable if he lets a bad deal for the citizens of the Lake Norman region go through under his administration, and that would be unfortunate.”

The specific issue which really sideswiped local officials was the addition of a 50-year noncompete clause in the contract. That clause suggests that upon completion of the I77 toll lanes, the DOT would likely have to pay the developer compensation if it builds new free lanes on the highway.

Widening I-77 with general purpose non-tolled lanes in the Lake Norman area was added to the area’s Long Range Transportation Plan in late 2013, with construction to start between 15 and 25 years thereafter. Shortly thereafter, the noncompete clause was changed with new language to exclude that project.

At the May meeting of the Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission, the I-77 issue, which was not on the agenda, came up for discussion at Washam’s request.

“I thought we needed to know whether we should stake out an official position,” Washam said. The majority of the members opted not to do so, leaving that up to the town boards. However, there was an extended discussion on how the noncompete clause wound up in the contract. “Apparently the DOT decided that if they didn’t put it in, the bids from the private sector for the I-77 toll lane project could be as much as $50 million higher,” said Huntersville’s Transportation Director Bill Coxe. “Unfortunately, the communication about this from the DOT stank.”

Even the governor’s proposed $3 billion transportation bond issue stirred the waters. “We were told the state has no capacity to borrow money for interstate expansion, and yet the governor’s new transportation plan calls for borrowing nearly $3 billion,” said NC Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican who previously served as Cornelius mayor. “If we now have the debt financing capacity we should expand I77 with general purpose lanes using bond funds.”

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