BRADENTON, Fla. - Opponents of the North Carolina Department of Transportation's plan to toll portions of Interstate 77 have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block the managed express-lane project.
A group called Widen I-77 filed a petition in Mecklenburg County Superior Court Jan. 20 for an injunction to stop the $655 million project.
The suit also challenges the constitutionality of the state's public-private partnership statute.
Along with NCDOT, the suit names the state, and I-77 Mobility Partners LLC, a consortium led by Spain-based Cintra Infraestructures S.A.
Cintra won a 50-year concession in April 2014 to build, finance and maintain the project. It was the state's first P3.
The legal challenge reportedly was filed just days before Cintra was to complete financing for the concession to rebuild 26 miles of I-77 north of Charlotte to ease severe traffic congestion. The project includes adding managed lanes and using variable, electronic toll collection.
The 12-count lawsuit is based on two issues, according to the nonprofit Widen I-77. One issue has to do with converting an existing general purpose lane into a toll lane.
State law allows this to occur if the number of free lanes remains the same, the group said on its website.
"For a stretch of I-77 the plan eliminates a general purpose lane," the group said. "We think that's a violation of state law."
The second issue deals with the definition of tolls as user fees.
"A provision in the contract allows NCDOT to collect a percentage of toll revenues," Widen I-77 said. "We think sending a percentage of revenue to the government is a tax."
The group said it believes this is a violation of the state constitution because the power to tax is granted to the General Assembly, and not to government agencies.
"Our hope is that the injunction will show this privatization of our public infrastructure and roads is an unconstitutional way to proceed," Widen I-77 member Vince Winegardner told the Charlotte Observer.
The NCDOT's website about the project said the existing general purpose lanes would remain free of charge, and that the project would "not add or take away any general purpose lanes."
In addition to toll revenues, NCDOT planned to contribute about $88 million in cash toward funding the project, officials said last year.
Toll revenues would go to Cintra to secure debt financing for the project, which was expected to include a $350 million private-activity bond allocation from the USDOT.