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CRTPO backs I-77 toll lanes

The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization voted overwhelmingly Wednesday in favor of reaffirming its support for local toll-lane projects. The move came after an hour-long public-comment session in which many voiced their opposition to the controversial building of toll lanes on Interstate 77 north of Uptown.

Natalie English, senior VP for public policy at the Charlotte Chamber, speaks out in favor of the region's toll-road policy at the CRTPO meeting. Photo by Roberta Fuchs

Natalie English, senior VP for public policy at the Charlotte Chamber, speaks out in favor of the region’s toll-road policy at the CRTPO meeting. Photo by Roberta Fuchs

Seven members of CRTPO voted against the strategy, including representatives from Mecklenburg, Union and Iredell counties, and the towns of Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Pineville. Fourteen voted in favor.

Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles voted in favor of the strategy after the Charlotte City Council directed her to do so on Jan. 11. Because Charlotte’s vote is weighted based on population, the city’s delegate to the organization held a near-majority pull on the outcome, with a 46 percent share of the vote.

Before casting her vote, Lyles said the city has heard and acknowledges public concerns over the state’s $648 million contract with Spanish company Cintra Infraestructuras to build the I-77 toll lanes from the Brookshire Freeway to exit 36 in Iredell County.

“It’s important not to create a regional divide,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to lose if we’re not together.”

She also said she would ask the North Carolina Department of Transportation to maintain an open dialogue with those concerned about the public-private partnership.

But Bill Russell, president and chief executive of the Lake Norman Chamber, said after the vote that the time for talk was over.

“People here don’t want to talk. They want action,” he said. “That dialogue should have taken place a long time ago.”

The planning organization took up the issue after a December request by Gov. Pat McCrory to either reaffirm or reverse the region’s current strategy. Several local lawmakers had previously asked him to scuttle the state’s contract with Cintra for the $648 million project, which calls for $95 million in taxpayer funds.

Many local residents and businesses have criticized the I-77 project, which includes building one toll lane in each direction from exit 11 near Uptown to exit 36, and converting an existing high-occupancy vehicle lane between Brookshire and exit 28 into a toll lane.

They have called it elitist and criticized the terms of the 50-year contract, which includes requiring taxpayers to compensate Cintra subsidiary I-77 Mobility Partners for lost revenue should the state later build general purpose lanes and the state to spend up to an additional $75 million if, according to the N.C. DOT, “toll revenue is dramatically less than project estimates.”

Cintra will set the cost of using the toll lanes, raising and lowering the cost according to demand. Cintra subsidiary I-77 Mobility Partners began clearing land and grading the area between exits 23 and 28 in November. Construction is slated for completion in 2018.

The region’s transportation plan includes not only the I-77 public-private partnership. Work has already begun or will in coming years on state-built toll lanes along Independence Boulevard and a segment of Interstate 485. Another project, further south on I-77, will probably be a public-private partnership, according to a recent statement by N.C. DOT Secretary Nick Tennyson.

The N.C. DOT has said that abandoning the current toll-lane strategy would have put those other projects in jeopardy, and that the penalty for cancelling the contract with Cintra could be as high as $300 million. Tennyson has also said the state was under no obligation to cancel the contract even if the CRTPO voted against continuing with its current strategy.

Those speaking in favor of reaffirming the toll-lane strategy included Angela Roberson, a representative from Cintra parent company Ferrovial Agroman. She said the company’s presence would create several hundred local job opportunities. Cintra, she said, would also rely on local firms for providing supplies.

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