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Lawsuit filed over proposed toll lanes on I-77

Widen I-77 spokesman Kurt Kaas, left, and attorney Matt Arnold, right, of Arnold & Smith PLLC, and who is representing Widen I-77, were joined by several Widen I-77 supporters at a press conference Tuesday morning on the front porch of the Arnold & Smith law office.

Widen I-77 spokesman Kurt Naas, left, and attorney Matt Arnold, right, of Arnold & Smith PLLC, who is representing Widen I-77, were joined by several Widen I-77 supporters at a press conference Tuesday morning on the front porch of the Arnold & Smith law office.

Opponents of plans to install toll lanes on Interstate 77 filed a lawsuit Tuesday morning in Mecklenburg County Superior Court that aims to stop the project.

Widen I-77 has hired attorney Matt Arnold, managing partner of Arnold & Smith PLLC, in whose office the group held a press conference 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Allowing private companies to manage toll roads “does not serve the public interest,” Arnold said. “Very little congestion and no tolls serve the public interest.”

The state Department of Transportation in June signed a contract with I-77 Mobility Partners LLC, which will manage design, construction, and financing and will operate the lanes for 50 years. The company is a subsidiary of Cintra, a Spanish infrastructure company.

In response to an inquiry, the state DOT issued a statement saying, “N.C. DOT will not comment on any pending litigation at this time.”

The project would include two toll lanes in each direction between the Brookshire Freeway near uptown and Exit 28 – one to be built and one being the current high-occupancy vehicle lane – and one newly constructed lane in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36 in Iredell County. The toll rates would vary depending upon the time of day and density of traffic, and have not yet been determined.

Vehicles with three or more passengers could use the express lanes for free.

“The I-77 Express Lanes project will provide a long-term solution to one of the most congested roadways in our state by giving drivers a choice to continue using general purpose lanes for free, use the new express lanes for free with three or more people in the car or choose to pay to use express lanes with fewer than 3 people for a more predictable travel time,” the DOT said in a statement. “Through a Public-Private Partnership this solution will be operational in a few years instead of waiting decades and it will be built at a fraction of the cost to the state.”

Construction is planned to begin this summer.

According to the N.C. DOT’s website, the I-77 project cost would be $655 million, of which $88 million would come from state and federal funds. Cintra would be responsible for funding the rest.

Under the terms of the agreement, Cintra had been required to secure financing by Jan. 22 or forfeit a $15 million deposit to the state DOT, according to Widen I-77.

In its statement released Wednesday, the DOT said the deadline will be extended “without penalty, as allowed under the contract, because both parties are working together to complete all requirements.”

“N.C. DOT and I-77 Mobility Partners are continuing to work toward financial close,” the statement said.

“We hope the bond markets recognize the financial infeasibility of this project and decide against funding it,” said Kurt Naas, a spokesman for Widen I-77, in a statement. “However, the bond markets have ignored the litany of recent tolling bankruptcies, so we are moving forward with the legal challenge.”

Cintra subsidiaries also manage toll lanes in Indiana and Texas, and have run into financial problems in both states.

The complaint filed by Widen I-77 claims that terms of the contract and the state’s delegation of authority to the DOT and Mobility Partners for toll setting and other activities are unconstitutional and violate state law.

“We are confident in our position and look forward to having our day in court,” said Arnold. “Undeniably, this is a classic David versus Goliath battle, but we are ready for the fight.”

The cost of the lawsuit, which Arnold estimated at between $50,000 and $70,000, is being paid for by members of Widen I-77 and contributions. Widen I-77 has raised about $20,000 so far.

About 20 toll road opponents attended the press conference, and were holding signs with a prohibit symbol through the word “tolls” in all capital letters.

“My big concern is that most people don’t understand the concept of this type of tolling,” said Huntersville resident Mary Armstrong. “This will leave the taxpayers totally exposed.”

Widen I-77 has planned three information sessions and fundraisers:

  • 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at Vinyl Pi, 15906 Old Statesville Road, Huntersville.
  • 7 p.m. Feb. 17 at Charles Mack Center, 215 N. Main St., Mooresville.
  • 7 p.m. Feb. 19 at Waltrip Racing, 20310 Chartwell Drive, Cornelius.

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