CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - An N.C. Department of Transportation consultant said Thursday that opposition to the Interstate 77 toll lane project is so intense that it would be a "potential justification" for canceling the project entirely.
The consultant, Mercator Advisors, said the DOT could cancel the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners "to be responsive to concerns that continue to be expressed by elected officials at the local, county and state level about the (public-private partnership) arrangement."
That could cost the state as much as $300 million, the report said.
The consultant's draft report said that "it would be difficult to find a major construction project that does not have some opposition, but sustained resistance by public officials to a project under construction is somewhat unusual."
Philadelphia-based Mercator Advisors said the state could cancel the entire toll lane contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, if it's willing to buy the Spanish company out.
"We have not identified any risks to NCDOT or potential financial liabilities that cannot be managed if appropriate resources are provided for project oversight," the report said.
Mercator said finding the money to buy out the contract would be a "significant challenge." The consultant said if the contractor and developer have fully drawn a federal loan when the contract is canceled, the buyout would exceed $289 million.
The consultant also criticized the state for not giving the public a chance to weigh in.
"Much of the public frustration with the Express Lanes Project can be attributed to the limited opportunity for public input during the project development period," Mercator said.
It also said NCDOT gave inadequate responses to public concerns about the project.
The I-77 project will add express toll lanes from uptown to Exit 36 in Iredell County. It was a key issue in last fall's governor's race, and some have linked the issue to Democrat Roy Cooper's narrow victory over the incumbent, Republican Pat McCrory.
McCrory has said the DOT was following the wishes of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which supported the toll lanes on several occasions.
But the local governments affected most by the toll lanes rejected the project. On the last vote in early 2016, the towns of Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville and Pineville, and Mecklenburg, Union and Iredell counties voted no. The city of Charlotte voted yes.
Under Cooper, DOT hired Mercator earlier this year to review the contract, and the department has halted planning and design work on other toll lane projects in the area, including I-485 in south Charlotte.
The state asked that people send comments or suggestions about the report to email@example.com by Sept. 9. A final report will be released later this summer.
Mercator also reviewed other ways to change the contract, though the report lacked specifics about how much other changes might cost.
"It would be presumptive to price these options ahead of more public feedback and the department making a decision on how to proceed," Carly Olexik of NCDOT said.
One possibility is to allow the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners to continue. But the state could convert one of the two toll lanes in each direction in north Mecklenburg into a general-purpose lane.
That would preserve the overall concept of using express toll lanes, which the city and state have said is critical to moving traffic and giving commuters guaranteed traffic times. But it might appease the project's harshest critics, who said I-77 near Lake Norman – which has only four lanes total – must be widened with free lanes.
"To address concerns that the new express lanes may not provide sufficient congestion relief in the existing general purpose lanes, it may be possible to modify the design and convert one of the express lanes in that section, or a portion of one express lane, to a general purpose lane," Mercator said about the section of I-77 from Exit 23 to Exit 28.
Mercator cited the Elizabeth River Tunnels Project in Virginia as a similarly modified project. In 2015, the Virginia DOT negotiated to eliminate tolls on one segment of the project in exchange for a $78 million payment.
But Mercator didn't give an estimate of how much the state would have to pay I-77 Mobility Partners for converting some toll lanes to free lanes.
In fact, Mercator didn't give any detailed information about some of the other options the state might consider.
They include allowing vehicles with two or more people to use the toll lanes for free, instead of the contract's requirement of three or more people. Another option would be to change the contract that prohibits the state from expanding the highway for 50 years unless it pays I-77 Mobility Partners compensation.
But any change to the contract that gives motorists more free lanes would reduce the amount of toll revenue I-77 Mobility Partners receives.
The question is how much.