NCDOT tries to clear up misunderstandings

CORNELIUS – N.C. Department of Transportation Technical Service Administrator Rodger Rochelle stepped into the lion’s den July 7 as he faced a crowd to defend the I-77 toll road project and attempt to clear misconceptions.

Rochelle was invited to speak at the Cornelius Town Board meeting to offer project updates, including that the N.C. Secretary of Transportation signed the preliminary contract with Spain-based Cintra at the end of June in the hopes construction of the $655 million project could start by spring 2015 and be completed within four years.

One main sticking point he couldn’t argue is the estimated cost to commuters opting to drive the 26 miles of prospective High Occupancy Toll lanes from Mooresville to Charlotte and back.

A 2012 report, presented during the meeting by Commissioner David Gilroy, shows estimated costs of $20 roundtrip during peak hours if opened in 2015 and jumping to $42 roundtrip during peak hours by 2035.

Rochelle said these numbers come from Stantec, a consultant for NCDOT when it thought the project would be more expensive, but these are not current figures. He couldn’t provide new estimations.

“That was one model that was run and is particularly aggressive,” Rochelle said of the Stantec model. “The Cintra model is what matters and it’s driven by the market. Someone tell me how many will choose to use the toll lane, then I can tell you how much it will be.”

Some portions of the road will be more expensive than others depending on the level of congestion as well as time of day, but Rochelle said a public hearing on the tolling methodology would take place before operations begin. He also said, 26 miles is a long distance and people may opt to only use the lanes for one or two segments rather than the whole thing, cutting the cost.

Catherine Dillon, of Statesville called the project “discriminatory for low-income people who want to use the road for whatever reason and don’t want to pay high tolls for a short time.”

She and Cornelius resident Ed Biggers said it didn’t seem fair that residents didn’t have a choice of having tolls versus waiting until there was money to simply widen the road. Rochelle said that would be only a short-term fix.

“I thought I lived in America where I have the right to vote,” Biggers said. “Have you considered how much impact economically this is going to affect us? I work part-time and sometimes go back and forth to Charlotte two and three times a day. If it’s like I’m hearing, it could be really expensive. … We were wronged here. We should have had a vote.”

Rochelle did try to clear up some misconceptions about the project. 

• The project is a public-private partnership. The $655 million includes $88 million in public funds with the rest from Cintra’s loans, bonds and $234 million of the company’s own money. The risk of losing money is on Cintra and there was never a profit guarantee, Rochelle said. If revenues fall too much, the state could contribute $75 million over the 50-year contract.

• The contract has been withheld because of confidentiality restrictions, but should be released within the week, though some parts may be redacted.

• No general-purpose lanes are being cut, though none will be added.

• While designated High Occupancy Vehicle lanes will be changed to HOT lanes, buses, motorcycles and vehicles with more than three people can still use the HOT lanes for free.

• Initial bid requirements only listed four HOT lane entry and exit locations, however, Cintra has already added one more with a potential sixth one for driver convenience.

• Cintra has come under the gun for having failing projects in other states. Rochelle said the company was audited and studied in great detail and that “Success or failure on any one given project will not affect another project.” He said taxpayers would not bail out Cintra and that the project is bonded.

• The prospect of HOT lanes will not stop widening of other roads such as U.S. 21 or N.C. 115, provided it’s only one or two lanes and doesn’t become a freeway, Rochelle said.

While Gilroy has always been open about his disfavor to the toll lanes, Commissioner Jim Duke didn’t mince words either.

“I don’t blame the project. I blame the way the project was sold, the way it was explained and the lack of information that went up,” Duke said. “It’s been a painful experience for this community – these folks don’t trust you.”