DALLAS – North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said Monday that local leaders in Charlotte should re-endorse a controversial $648 million express lane project on Interstate 77 being financed and built through a public-private partnership or develop a new long-term plan.
The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization had decided on Aug. 19 to adopt the area's 10-year plan that included the I-77 project.
"If the strategy of using optional toll lanes is no longer supported by your regional transportation planning organization, a new regional transportation plan would have to be created because there are four projects in the current plan that would be affected," McCrory said in a letter to the planning group.
The project involves the conversion of an existing high-occupancy vehicle lane to a tolled express lane and addition of a second tolled express lane. Carpoolers with at least three occupants can use the express lanes at no charge.
The 26 miles of express lanes are expected to be operational in 2018.
I-77 Mobility Partners, which includes Cintra Infraestructuras and Aberdeen Global Infrastructure, began work in early November on the $648 million project to add the two express toll lanes on 26 miles of I-77 in the Charlotte area. The project is being financed and constructed under a 50-year concession agreement with the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Opposition to the tolled lanes plan in suburban areas of Mecklenburg and Iredell counties led to the defeat of several incumbents at the November elections, including Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain and city commissioner Sarah McAuley, a toll supporter who chaired the regional planning commissioner when it adopted the 10-year plan. Swain did not take a position on the toll lanes, but her opponent and successor John Aneralla was an early opponent of the project.
Mecklenburg County commissioners adopted a resolution in June asking NCDOT to kill the toll lane project. The commissioners later voted to instruct their delegate to the planning board to vote against the 10-year transportation plan.
Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts is a proponent of the tolled lanes but the council's transportation committee will meet Jan. 4 to decide whether to continue its support of the project. The city's sole delegate casts 31 of the 68 votes in the regional planning group.
The CRTPO transportation planning group's next meeting is set for Jan. 20.
It's not clear how much it would cost to terminate the I-77 contract, McCrory said, but much of it might have to come from the local governments.
"Voluntarily incurring such a cost does not have a precedent and we would have to work through funding and other implications with the General Assembly," he said. "If the current strategy is reversed, we anticipate the legislature could ask the locality to absorb the costs in some manner."
Breaking the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners "would entail reimbursing the contractor for costs incurred," McCrory said.
In addition, $145 million of state surplus funds that had been allocated to the four projects in the current plan would be redirected across the state "and most of that money likely would not be returned to the Charlotte metropolitan area," he said.
NCDOT said it would cost the state at least $100 million to terminate the contract.
Funding for the project includes $249.8 million of equity from the private partner, a $189 million low-interest Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan, $100 million of private-activity bonds, and $91.4 million from the state. The bonds and the TIFIA loan are rated BBB-minus by Fitch.