Bill to cancel I-77 tolls has uncertain future in NC Senate

I-77 bill stalled in NC Senate

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - The future of a bill canceling the contract to build toll lanes along I-77 remains uncertain, as Republicans in the North Carolina Senate debate whether to give the bill a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee.

The bill to cancel the toll lanes passed with bipartisan support in the House in early June, thanks in part to heavy lobbying by the bill's author, Rep. Charles Jeter (R-Mecklenburg).

But leaders in the Senate have been less enthusiastic about the proposal.

At a press conference ahead of the start of the short session this spring, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said he didn't see a reason to cancel the contract with the information he had at that point.

Berger remained skeptical in an interview with On Your Side Investigates months later.

"I know that we've got members who are looking at it. I think there will be certainly a significant push, particularly by those members who represent the area that's effected," Berger said in response to a question of whether he anticipated the bill reaching the floor this session.

In a follow-up question, Berger stopped short of offering an assurance the bill would even get a vote in the Senate Transportation Committee.

A report released by the legislature's Fiscal Research Division June 7, 2016 estimated it would cost at least $88 million to break the contract, not including additional expenses to pay attorneys and consultants. The report also said the North Carolina Department of Transportation has estimated it could cost $4.37 million to maintain the work already completed on the project for future construction.

Berger said he's concerned about the cost of canceling the project.

"I'm concerned about that cost in terms of dollars; where does the money come from?" Berger said. "But I'm also concerned about what kind of message that sends to the larger audience out there."

North Carolina currently has six toll projects under construction or in development, including the I-77 toll lanes project. The state has another five projects under consideration, according to a NCDOT presentation to lawmakers earlier this year.

Berger said North Carolina will continue to rely on tolls to help finance future highway projects.

"If, right out of the gate, one of the first toll projects we have, we step out there and then we back up, I'm not sure that the message that sends is a good message," Berger said.

Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla, who was elected on an anti-toll platform in 2015, said he hopes the Senate will follow the House's lead in passing the legislation to cancel the I-77 contract.

"Not only did it pass, it passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support and it's amazing that a bill could go through this type of legislature with such an overwhelming majority," Aneralla said of the legislation's move through the House. "I hope that they listen to the will of the people."

Copyright 2016 WBTV. All rights reserved.