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Alphabet soup of agencies would review new I-77 plan


Feb. 15. By Dave Yochum. ANALYSIS. The second meeting of the I-77 Advisory Group got under way yesterday with former Chamber Chair Mike Russell announcing that there were emergency exits on either side of a packed meeting room. “Just don’t take 77,” Chamber CEO Bill Russell interjected.

It was a touch of dark humor at the beginning of a dark meeting. It turns out it’s easy enough to cancel the 50-year contract with Cintra, but it will be profoundly difficult to put anything different—even free lanes—in its place.

An alphabet soup of agencies has signed off on the existing plan, which means they will have to sign off on virtually any kind of new plan. The bureaucrats, policy wonks and technocrats in agencies from the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization to the Environmental Protection Agency will again make sure that no snail darters are harmed—and that could take years.

This, for a $640 million highway contract that was executed without an economic impact study, as first reported by Business Today in June 2015.

The advisory board is just that—a group of delegates from business organizations and municipalities trying mightily to find a way to fix a contract that has been described as if it was written by Cintra itself.

But even though it could take years to really fix it, it’s better than waiting 50 years for it to end, said Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, an early critic of the toll plan which has a roadbed that will not support the tractor trailers that are so crucial to economic development and local warehouse jobs.

“It is a project that has a number of major negative impacts on the region, as we start to talk about the time frame of making these changes, it is small compared to the 50 year contract…we need to talk about the impact of not changing the project on the business community here,” Puckett states.

The environmental hurdles mean making changes to the project—like converting the toll lanes to free lanes—could result in lanes sitting unused for some period of time.

Puckett wants the NC Secretary of Commerce to comment on the economic impact of the congestion on I-77, which new toll lanes will apparently do nothing to alleviate.

Suffice it to say, if the grand opening  of the I77 toll lanes were held tomorrow, no elected official in his or her right mind would attend.

It’s more and more clear the project is widely perceived as a disaster in Raleigh, poorly executed from beginning to its official end when most of the bigwigs around the table will be dead.

“The I-77 tolling issue…we’ve won that argument,” declared Bill Russell, Chamber CEO. (He is not related to Mike Russell, the former chairman.) “I don’t think anyone in the room, including NCDOT and Gov. Cooper’s administration, believes that tolling is the best alternative for Lake Norman.”

It’s Lake Norman’s “Main Street,” said Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, another long-time toll fighter. She said comparing I-77 to I-40 near Raleigh was faulty in light of it being the principal artery for travel to and from schools, businesses and healthcare.

The question at hand is “how do we move forward with the contract in place when we believe the contract needs to be cancelled and we need general purpose lanes for I-77,” Russell said.

The advisory group is the single clear road toward some kind of resolution.

Convened by the governor, the group will weigh options around cancelling and replacing the contract, leaving it intact and changing the scope of work.

Cintra, of course, has no incentive to change the contract. Indeed, it’s a public-private partnership that was written in heaven for a private company. In an epically clever move that could be a several chapters in the “Book of Shrewd Moves,” no private equity has been contributed so far.

Assurances that the public’s interest was protected by the fact that the  contract could be terminated were disingenuous, according to Kurt Naas, the original anti-toll fighter, who landed a seat on the Cornelius Town Board last year.

“The point being that what was told in court, that this is the ultimate safeguard [the right to cancel the contract] and reality are two different things,” Naas said.

The ultimate decision lies with Gov. Cooper who has the weight of the North Mecklenburg election results behind him. The normally Republican region helped vote his predecessor, Pat McCrory, out of office after only one term.

The next meeting of the advisory board is 6-8 pm Feb. 22 in the chamber meeting room. It will be open to the public, as this one was. The initial meeting was closed to the public, a possible violation of North Carolina’s Open Meetings law.

The reasoning around closing the meeting was hardly sinister. Strategies around fighting Cintra, perhaps in court, may be discussed. “We’re giving a front-row seat to Cintra to see our tactics and potential changes to the contract and allows them a chance to prepare their defense of an existing contract,” one official said, explaining that Cintra has lobbyists in Raleigh.