As the N.C. Secretary of Transportation starts negotiations to modify the contract with a private company building toll lanes on Interstate 77, there’s plenty of uncertainty about when and how the controversial project can be changed.

And tolls, a politically explosive issue in north Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, are being picked up by both parties. Democrats hoping to break the Republican’s legislative super-majority in November are criticizing Republicans, while Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, are hammering Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper for not acting now to cancel the contract with Spanish infrastructure firm Cintra. 

In a statement Thursday, Forest all but declared his candidacy against Cooper for the governor’s seat in 2020, with the 26-mile toll project as a signature issue.

“The I-77 toll road contract was a colossal mistake started by the Perdue administration, signed by the McCrory administration, punted by the Cooper administration and would be fixed by a Forest administration,” Forest wrote. 

Asked for more specifics on Forest’s plans, spokesman Jamey Falkenbury said, “We haven’t decided yet if we will use scissors to cut it up or if we will simply rip it up with our hands. To be determined later.”

Ford Porter, a spokesman for Cooper, said Forest hasn’t made any contributions to a solution so far, while the N.C. Democratic Party accused him of “jockeying for the next election” without offering any specific plans.

“While Secretary Trogdon has had eight open meetings with the local advisory council working towards a realistic solution, the Lt. Governor has been nowhere to be found,” said Porter. 

Meanwhile, N.C. Department of Transportation officials said Secretary Jim Trogdon contacted Cintra on Thursday, and the company agreed to start negotiations next month on changes to the contract such as capping toll rates, giving frequent driver discounts and adding the ability for trucks to use the express lanes. 

“We’re working to have those solutions in place as quickly as possible,” said spokeswoman Carly Olexik. Trogdon expects to have a plan for making those changes in January, when the DOT will notify the legislature. The state also expects to put out a contract next year to harden the shoulders along I-77 for motorists to use during peak hours, another traffic relief valve the DOT can build.

Jean Leier, a spokeswoman for I-77 Mobility Partners, the Cintra subsidiary overseeing the project, declined to comment on the negotiations but said the company works closely with NCDOT.

The toll lanes are expected to open by the end of the year. 

Under the terms of its contract, Cintra is footing most of the $647 million bill and managing the lanes. The company would collect toll revenue for 50 years. The project is adding two toll lanes in each direction from uptown to Exit 28, in Cornelius, and one new toll lane in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36. 

The tolls would use “dynamic pricing,” meaning it would cost more to use the lanes as traffic worsened and less as congestion eased. 

Trogdon said Wednesday that the state ultimately wants to buy out Cintra, take over the toll lanes, convert one toll lane to a general purpose free lane between Huntersville and Cornelius and add one general purpose lane between Cornelius and Mooresville. But that’s not feasible now, Trogdon said, because it would cost $550 million to $800 million.

Under the state’s Strategic Transportation Investments law, the project would have to be scored using data-driven analysis and compete against other projects in the state for funding. The legislature could pass a bill funding the cancellation and exempting the I-77 toll lanes from STI, but the state House and Senate passed differing bills and didn’t agree on a funding source or amount in the most recent session.

In a statement, Cooper said short-term measures like capping tolls will be a “good first step.”

“This was a bad deal for families in the Charlotte area and while the ultimate goal is to ease traffic and have North Carolina operate the project, I appreciate the Department of Transportation’s work with local leaders to identify protections and improvements addressing immediate concerns,” Cooper said. “l encourage legislative leaders to support these changes instead of defending this bad contract that will hurt working families.”

The I-77 toll fight has entered a new and somewhat unusual phase. When the privately operated toll lanes were proposed more than six years ago, opponents were loud but DOT officials supported the project and many state government officials said there was no way to stop it and still widen I-77. Now, most officials agree the state should cancel the contract and take over the toll project, but there’s no agreement on how.

Republican legislators and Forest are pointing to language in the contract that gives the DOT “sole discretion” to cancel the deal with Cintra. Democrats, however, say language in the most recent budget requiring the DOT to give the legislature 60 days notice before canceling or modifying the Cintra contract weakens their bargaining position, and that any cancellation requires a specific appropriation to pay the bill. 

“This year’s budget really put a damper on our capacity to negotiate,” said Rep. Chaz Beasley, who represents a district in the House that runs along part of I-77 north of uptown. “My hope is we’ll have a legislature that looks different enough next year that we can make some significant changes to this.”

Natasha Marcus, a Democrat running against State Sen. Jeff Tarte in a district that covers north Mecklenburg, said Forest and other Republicans are using tolls as a political club. 

“I see the local Republicans, my opponent included, trying to pin this all on Gov. Cooper,” said Marcus. “The truth is we need a legislative solution to this mess…There are going to be huge amounts of dollars required.” 

Tarte, however, said the governor should cancel the contract now and count on the General Assembly to appropriate the money to pay for it afterward. 

“Once the governor cancels the contract or modifies it, we can appropriate,” said Tarte. 

“We actually have in sight a viable solution,” he said of Forest running in 2020. “The only thing is a slight delay until we get him in office.”

While the contract negotiation and politics roll on in Raleigh, construction crews are laying down miles of asphalt, painting lane markers and building bridges to enter and exit the toll lanes in Charlotte. Drivers will be paying tolls to Cintra in about four months, if construction goes according to plan. 

Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett said he hopes the governor, DOT officials and leaders in both houses of the legislature can get together and find a common path forward soon.

“Now we’re to the point where the problem is we’re wasting our time on finger-pointing, obfuscation, political grandstanding and he-said, she-said politics instead of fixing it,” said Puckett, who represents north Mecklenburg. “I continue to hold out hope that now that we all agree it’s a debacle, there has got to be some sane person in Raleigh.”

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