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Cornelius tries again for I-77 toll-lane derailment

77.webCORNELIUS — The town’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to adopt a resolution asking that the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Interstate 77 toll-road contract with a Spanish developer be terminated immediately.

The board also requested that the heavily trafficked roadway be widened with general-purpose lanes “that taxpayers have already paid for through the gasoline tax” or through bonds N.C. Governor Pat McCrory has proposed issuing for $1.5 billion in highway projects.

The N.C. General Assembly would have to approve the bond package before it went to voters next fall.

Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy said he hoped the resolution would prompt a chain reaction among local municipalities and counties to adopt a similar measure. That, he said, should showcase to McCrory the “intense hatred” among area constituents for the planned toll road.

“There’s a groundswell of public opinion against (the project),” Gilroy said, describing local criticism as “vitriolic.”

McCrory said last month that regional transportation officials requested the toll-lane project several years ago and that it is too late in the game to change course. The Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, the precursor to the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, added the lane conversion project to its long-range transportation plan in 2011. CRTPO, which includes representatives from Mecklenburg County and a portion of Iredell and Union counties, coordinates transportation planning among its member governments.

Cornelius Mayor Charles Travis penned his name on the town’s plea to nix the agreement, after having voted in 2013 for the NCDOT’s plans to widen I-77 with toll lanes. When asked if Travis signed the commissioners’ resolution as a matter of protocol, Town Clerk Lori Harrell said, “Yes, the mayor has the signing authority for the board.” Travis, a member of the NCDOT’s turnpike board, replied to an email, but did not respond to questions seeking his comment.

Gilroy said he imagined Travis was “kicking and screaming” at the idea of asking the NCDOT to back out of the contract.

“He’s getting more and more closeted by the day,” Gilroy said, referring to what he believes is Travis’ minority stance as a proponent of the deal. “The toll is grotesquely unpopular.”

The state transportation department surprised many on May 20 when it announced at a Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization meeting that N.C. DOT had closed on the financing of the controversial public-private partnership with Spanish developer Cintra. Opponents of the 26-mile project had assumed DOT’s May 27 deadline for the action would have given the CRTPO the option of voting on a resolution requesting a delay to the closing, just as the towns of Cornelius, Huntersville, Davidson and Mooresville had done. Commissioners in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties had also requested a postponement.

Under the agreement, Cintra subsidiary I-77 Mobility Partners will manage design, construction and financing, and operate the lanes for 50 years. The contract contains a clause that would disallow the N.C. DOT from adding general-purpose lanes to I-77 between Brookshire Freeway and Exit 36 without compensating I-77 Mobility Partners for lost revenue.

Some $95 million for the project will come from taxpayers. Cintra will be responsible for $539 million, which includes $189 in federal loans, $100 million in proceeds from private activity bonds and $250 million in private equity. Fitch has assigned a ‘BBB-‘ rating to the bonds and the subordinated loan granted under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. The outlook is stable, Fitch says.

Plans call for building one toll lane in each direction from the Brookshire Freeway near uptown to Exit 36 in Iredell County, and converting the existing high-occupancy vehicle lane between Brookshire and Exit 28 into a toll lane.

I-77 Mobility Partners will determine the toll pricing, which will change based on congestion levels.

Cintra subsidiaries managing toll lanes in Indiana and Texas have run into financial problems in both states, including filing for Chapter 11 protection with a plan to reorganize debt.

N.C. DOT Chief Deputy Secretary Nick Tennyson said at the May 20 CRTPO meeting that construction would give drivers options on maneuvering the clogged highway, adding that cancelling or delaying the contract would have serious financial ramifications. He said postponement beyond July 1 would cause North Carolina to lose $45 million in bonus allocation funds for other transportation projects. Cancelling the contract could cost $100 million in damages, he said.

Meanwhile, opposition group Widen I-77 says it will continue with a lawsuit filed in February in Mecklenburg County Superior Court that aims to stop the project. The complaint claims that terms of the contract and the state’s delegation of authority to the DOT and I-77 Mobility Partners for toll setting and other activities are unconstitutional and violate state law.


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