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Cornelius News

Will potholes be the least of our worries on I-77?

To anonymously report any suspected wrongdoing on any NCDOT project, call 1-888-436-8847 or visit ncdot.ethicaladvocate.com

Some of the more than 800 documented problems with the I-77 toll lane construction will not be fixed prior to the opening of the toll lanes—and none of the lanes will open in 2018 after all.

Cornelius resident Michelle Ferlauto did a public records request a year ago for all construction related non-compliance events, unearthing a trove of non-conformance events dating to October of 2015.

All told, there were 866, with more than 400 occurring in the past 8 months.

Michelle Ferlauto: Citizen watch dog

Ferlauto founded the Lake Norman Transportation Safety Partnership and ran unsuccessfully for the Cornelius Town Board in 2017. But she maintained regular contact with NCDOT staff regarding safety concerns on the I-77 construction zone.

“I believe the non-conformance logs not only tell a story that completely validates drivers’ complaints over the duration of the project and raise new questions about the quality of the work being done,” she said.

The problems range from drainage and defects in the asphalt to cracks in the walls, as well as “honeycombing” in a new tunnel under the roadway in Huntersville.

“All the items in the non-conformance events are relevant in any conversation about long-term safety on I-77,” Ferlauto said.

Problematic, too, is Cintra’s history in a now bankrupt highway project out west, known as Texas 130. A variety of construction defects has the new owners—essentially creditors—demanding that Cintra repay more than $100 million to fix cracks, heaving pavement and other flaws at multiple locations along the length of the 41-mile roadway.

Cintra is half of the P3, or public-private partnership, building the $650 million toll lanes between Lake Norman and Charlotte.

The new lanes won’t open until spring, according to the NCDOT; bad weather as well as supply chain issues having slowed down construction.

Thus far, there have been 10 incidents on the toll lane project that have resulted in more than $5 million in fines, compared with 14 on the just completed Monroe Expressway. However, the amount of the fines on the Monroe project ($135,000) is dramatically lower than the $5 million fines to date on I-77.

DOT officials stand by their monitoring of the project. Non-conformance reports relate primarily to construction quality control.

“For the I-77 Express Lanes project, additional inspectors were hired, along with a consultant team, who solely focuses on evaluating the quality of construction,” said NCDOT spokeswoman Jen Thompson. The department also added a staff member to solely monitor traffic control.

The NCDOT has used non-conformance reports to identify and document issues related to construction contract requirements and specifications.

Under the agreement between the DOT and I-77 Mobility Partners, the developer also has staff and consultants overseeing Sugar Creek Construction in day-to-day operations, as well as issuance of non-conformance reports if needed.

“Any of these staff can initiate non-conformance reports,” Thompson said.

All non-conformance reports will be corrected and closed prior to final acceptance of the project in October 2019.

If NCDOT determines that the work is to be accepted, NCDOT has the authority to deduct amounts from any payments that are due  to the I-77 Mobility or invoice them.

NCDOT can also direct that all non-conforming work be removed and replaced or otherwise corrected by I-77 Mobility at their expense.

Once the lanes change hands there’s no going back for 50 years.

“I would like to think that the state would put public safety before any construction deadline and do their due diligence to make sure that all non-conformance items have been completely resolved before doing so,” Ferlauto said.

One of the more serious incidents which is still under investigation occurred last summer near the I-85/I-77 interchange when a dump truck operator left his bed in the upright position, causing damage to the underside of a bridge. This incident also resulted in a 24-hour closure for northbound I-77 traffic.

“There will be penalties imposed for this incident, due to the extended lane closures to clear the crash scene. However, the incident is still currently under review so we don’t have a precise amount yet,” Thompson said.

Shortly after the incident, Sugar Creek Construction said that the driver of the truck had been banned from working on the toll lane project.

The structure of the CINTRA toll lane contract continues to be a sore point with local officials. N.C. Sen.-elect Natasha Marcus, who defeated Jeff Tarte in the 41st District, which covers a significant part of the toll lanes, said she is committed to restoring the Governor’s authority to cancel the toll contract, by appropriating the funds required to make immediate alterations to the project and to buy out Cintra.