NCDOT talks with town leaders about toll roads

HUNTERSVILLE – Residents continue to raise concerns about the lack of transparency they feel concerning the Interstate 77 managed toll lanes project.

The N.C. Department of Transportation, I-77 Mobility Partners and Cintra, the company NCDOT contracted to design and operate the managed lanes, held private meetings with local officials Aug. 21 to discuss updates on the project and answer questions from local officials and citizens.

According to Warren Cooksey, NCDOT director of community affairs, although the meetings were originally planned to only involve local officials, NCDOT and Cintra, media were allowed to listen in on the conversations.

“The meetings helped NCDOT understand better the issues to cover at regional community meetings we will hold around the end of September,” Cooksey said. “All in all, I believe that all parties found the meetings helpful.”

But Huntersville Commissioner Rob Kidwell, who opted not to attend, and Kurt Naas, a member of the anti-tolls group Widen I-77, said the meetings were not open to the public, were not opened to the media until the last minute, did not allow more than two commissioners at a time and did not comply with N.C. open meeting laws.

“I spoke with other commissioners who attended and it appears the towns did not hear any new information from either group,” Kidwell said. “The one thing that came from these meetings is they still do not know what they are going to charge on these toll roads.”

The charge to ride the I-77 toll lanes is still unknown. Residents are questioning why Cintra and NCDOT have not released a solid number as far as what the managed lanes will cost.

Naas said local representatives should not agree to close meetings if the project, which has been in the works since 2007, is a done deal.

“Where is the insistence that the public know the price they are to pay before we sign the contract,” Naas said. “Also without credibility is Cintra's "who knows" answer to how much they expect the tolls to be. Are we to believe the bond underwriters will cut a check for hundreds of millions based on a shrug of the shoulders?”

Cooksey said the entire project costs $655 million. I-77 Mobility Partners will handle the repayment of the debt and plans to fund about $315 million. Private equity will fund $234 million, NCDOT will fund $88 million and the remainder will come from capitalized interest and interest income.

Although Cooksey said NCDOT is unable to give a toll price yet, he said state or national taxpayers will have no responsibility for paying off the project bonds, however toll revenues could be used to pay off the debt.

Officials from the Lake Norman towns expressed interest during the meetings in how the toll lanes might affect each town’s area plans.

Safety was also a concern. Specific to Huntersville, part of the central section of the project, Cooksey said the I-77 entry and exit points with merge lanes will be implemented between Exit 13 and 18, Hambright Road and Exit 23 and entry and exit ways between Exit 25 and Westmoreland Road. These entry and exit points will ensure safer and easier merging on and off the toll lanes.

Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain said the meetings were not held in secret or out of the public’s knowledge on purpose. She said the intention behind the meetings was so commissioners could freely ask questions, have a healthy discussion about what the citizens were asking and gain a clearer idea about the I-77 toll lane project.

“I believe the more questions citizens ask, the better they’ll understand the project and the quicker they will be to dismiss rumors,” Swain said.

For more information on what the project entails, go to www.ncdot.gov/projects/i-77managedlanes/.