News: CJ Exclusives

I-77 tolling opponents not giving up

Senate will not consider House-passed measure canceling HOT lanes project north of Charlotte

CJ file photo
CJ file photo

Managed-lane opponents in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties aren’t giving up after hearing the news that the Senate will allow the General Assembly to adjourn without taking up House Bill 954, a measure canceling the Interstate 77 high-occupancy or toll lanes project.

“We’ll probably reintroduce this again, maybe with a different makeup in the legislature and a change in the executive branch,” said Kurt Naas, a spokesman for Widen I-77, a group opposing the project.

North Carolina citizens will elect a governor as well as all 170 seats in the General Assembly this November. Incumbent GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration has backed the I-77 HOT lane project.

Naas noted that canceling the contract will get more difficult as the project advances.

“It doesn’t get any easier the further it goes,” Naas said. “But the drumbeat keeps getting louder.”

Naas acknowledged that the Cintra, the Spain-based company that has the contract, already has initiated work on the I-77 project, noting that some vegetation clearing is underway. “They’ve done some grading,” Naas added.

He said he doesn’t understand how the bill, which passed the House overwhelmingly, could not get taken up in the Senate.

“My reaction I think mirrors thousands in the Lake Norman community, which is why did the Senate Republican leadership put the interest of a multibillion-dollar foreign company ahead their fellow North Carolinians?”

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said during an April news conference that he had not seen any information leading him to believe that canceling the project was the right thing to do.

During a committee meeting earlier in June when the House was taking up the bill, Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson said that N.C. Department of Transportation could be liable for penalties if the project were canceled and a court sided with Cintra in a potential lawsuit. While no one could cite definite potential liability figure, some lawmakers estimated it could be as high as $250 million.

Tennyson also said if lawmakers canceled the contract with Cintra, he had no idea when I-77 would be widened to alleviate congestion.

Plans call for Cintra to construct HOT lanes on a 26-mile stretch of I-77 from the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte to the N.C. 150 interchange in Iredell County. The construction would leave four lanes going in both north and south directions.

Two lanes in each direction would remain standard lanes and not require a toll. Motorists could ride on the other two lanes either by paying a toll or having at least three people in their vehicles.

Naas said that he expects other grass-roots organizations in the Lake Norman area to make the I-77 project an issue in the 2016 elections.