CORNELIUS, NC (WBTV) - North Carolina Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson sent a letter to cities in the Charlotte-region this week soliciting input for potential changes to the state's contract with a private firm hired to build and operate toll lanes along I-77.
The letter was sent Wednesday to leaders of jurisdictions that make up the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization. This comes just weeks after CRTPO, following a request from Governor Pat McCrory, "acted to reaffirm the use of optional toll lanes as a strategy on four corridors in the region."
DOCUMENT: Letter from Secretary Tennyson
In the letter, Tennyson said the letter is following up on a promise he made at the January 20 CRTPO meeting to solicit suggestions and make improvements to the contract.
He asks for mayors of each jurisdiction to "provide a consolidated list of the specific aspects of the contract to which members of your body object."
Examples include restrictions on the type of vehicles that can use the lanes, and the concern over entrance and exit points from the toll lanes.
The letter points out that the state is "not asking for an action by your board/council-just a list generated by your jurisdiction."
"We may not be able to satisfy every issue raised, but we want to make certain we are identifying all the potential points of concern," Tennyson wrote. "However, we recognize there are aspects of this project for which additional review may yield a better outcome."
Once the list is compiled, the state says it will then provide a timeline for a response, adding "any changes will be the subject of a negotiated agreement between I-77 Mobility Partners, as provided for in the contract."
Any change to the contract would require negotiation between NCDOT and Cintra, the Spanish firm awarded a 50-year contract to build and operate the lanes.
Cornelius Mayor Chuck Travis said he appreciates the outreach from the DOT and says he already knows of at least two specific items he would include in such a list.
"We need to have lanes designed to accommodate heavy truck traffic, which it doesn't allow for now, and we need to have an economic impact study performed," Mayor Travis said. "They are looking for various things like that, what they're asking for are suggestions that can have and impact and even some out of the box thinking.
"I thought it was a good move," said Cornelius Mayor Pro-Tem Woody Washam. "It's about the best thing they could do, short of canceling the project."
Washam says he and other leaders will indeed create a list of what they determine needs to be addressed.
When told about the letter, local resident Alyn Szymanski said it was refreshing that "somebody actually asked for an opinion."
"I was pretty frustrated with our government with our decisions that were made toward allowing the toll to continue, we really were hoping that we were going to have the flexibility of being able to use the road without paying a toll, I won't drive a toll, pay a tool, to travel 77, I'll just avoid it, personally," Szymanski added. "As a taxpayer in the area I appreciate someone evaluating and listening to our opinion about the toll, there was a lot of feedback given by this community especially regarding the fact that we were really not interested in paying a toll and that we needed the expansion of 77 without the toll."
Troutman Mayor Ron 'Duck" Wyatt said he doesn't like the contract and doesn't like the project, but thinks it's good that the DOT is reaching out.
"All the facts are public and a lot of people are upset and concerned. I personally don't think this is a great contract, I personally don't think this is a great project, however, with the options on the table, it was the only one to have,' Mayor Wyatt said. "All of us are not going to get what we want regardless of what side you stand on and what you believe, but to may, they are making every effort possible to get as much inclusion and to handle any fears or concerns that may be there, or at least give you an answer to them."
In Huntersville the letter was met with a different reaction.
Mayor John Aneralla said that leaders had been voicing concerns about the contract for three years, and that when he received the letter, his blood pressure "went up a little."
"We will respond, we're trying to get the other communities all together to have unified voice in terms of our issues," Mayor Aneralla said. "We brought all these issues up already, we will bring them up again with a more unified voice or a continued unified voice.
The letter also attached a fact sheet about the project that included a question and answer on various topics related to the I-77 toll lanes.
One point of the fact sheet responded specifically to an On Your Side investigation published last week that examined Cintra's track record of operating toll roads in other states.
FULL STORY: WBTV Investigates Toll Road Troubles
Lawmakers in Indiana said Cintra's history of financial troubles should be a cautionary tale to those in North Carolina who support the contract with Cintra.
"Is it true the private developer has a track record of similar projects failing?" the question reads. "No. The company has a history of producing successful project delivery in the United States and in Europe."
The answer does not provide any facts or examples supporting that statement.