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NCDOT Ensures No Improvements on I-77 for 50 Years

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The I-77 tolling contract contains a non-compete clause that allows Cintra to be compensated for lost revenues resulting from certain public improvements. Basically, if we add any general purpose interstate lanes we’ll not only pay for construction costs but also whatever revenues Cintra is projected to lose.

There are a few exceptions to this. One exception is if the improvement is part of a government transportation plan, even if it is unfunded. The entity who develops transportation plans for the Charlotte area is the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO).  In January 2014 CRTPO submitted a project list to NCDOT that included a project to widen I-77 with general purpose lanes from exit 28- exit 36.

This project was not funded, and no timeline was set for its construction. It was more like a reservation- i.e. since the project is now in the plan, it is exempt from the non-compete clause. It could be built in some future decade without having to compensate Cintra.

Just days after CRTPO approved the project list, NCDOT amended the draft agreement (it had not yet been signed) to disqualify the I-77 widening project from the exemption. In other words, Cintra would be entitled to compensation if I-77 was widened from exit 28 to exit 36 even though that project was in a transportation plan.

The timeline for this is curious, to say the least:

June 2013: North Carolina General Assembly passes legislation revamping how transportation funding is prioritized. NCDOT requires all planning organizations to prepare and submit a list of highway projects according to the new criteria. The list is due in six months.

Jul 2013: NCDOT splits the northern segment of the I-77 toll project into two projects.  I-4750AA adds toll lanes down the center of the existing causeways from exit 28- exit 36. I-4750AB would widen the causeways to add general purpose lanes along the same stretch.

Sept 2013: The group tasked with developing the highway project list for the Charlotte Region, the Technical Coordinating Committee (TCC), creates a preliminary list. I-4750AB is included.

Dec 2013: The TCC finalizes the highway project list and sends it to CRTPO for approval. I-4750AB is included.

Jan 15, 2014: CRTPO unanimously approves the highway project list, including I-4750AB.

Jan 27, 2014: NCDOT issues Addendum 4 to the draft contract. Among the changes is language specifically disqualifying I-4750AB from the non-compete exclusion.

Jan 28, 2014: NCDOT begins accepting projects for inclusion in the state transportation plan.

So the day before CRTPO could send their list, NCDOT disqualified widening I-77 from the non-compete clause. Remember, the rest of the toll project from Charlotte to Cornelius uses up all of the remaining right of way for toll lanes. The only stretch that could be widened was the northern stretch, and now that’s all but impossible.

The net result: once the toll lanes are built there will be no improvements on I-77 for the next 50 years.

The timing is also curious because proposal bids were due in mid-February. It’s easy to envision a scenario where Cintra insisted on writing the project out of the contract as a condition of submitting a bid. Seeing as how they were the only bidders, NCDOT acquiesced.

What’s amazing about this is nobody at CRTPO or the TCC seemed to know about this change. For that matter, it appears towns staffs have been kept in the dark as well.  This is especially ironic  given the fact that the TCC and CRTPO seem to pride themselves on working closely with the NCDOT.

For example,  in the giddy days right after the contract was signed the TCC wanted to form a Tolled Corridors Advisory Team to develop new policies governing the network of planned toll roads around Charlotte. NCDOT was to be an advisory team member. With this breech of trust, we wonder how that’s working out.

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