Legislators continue to debate funding plan for I-77 toll lane cancellation/modification

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Lawmakers in the North Carolina Senate unanimously voted Thursday to support a new plan to provide funding for the potential modification or cancellation of the I-77 toll lane contract with Cintra.

Just hours after the vote, the North Carolina House of Representatives unanimously voted not to concur with the Senate vote.

Senator Jeff Tarte, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, had pleaded with his colleagues in the Senate to support the vote Thursday evening.

"It sounds strange but I beg you, I beg you to help us solve this problem in this corridor," said Tarte as he spoke to other senators in the General Assembly.

Tarte sponsored an amendment to House Bill 1029, an omnibus transportation bill.

Just days earlier, Representative John Ray Bradford III, a Republican Representative from Mecklenburg County, had sponsored his own amendment to the bill.

Bradford's amendment aimed to create a reserve fund that would use money from the state's Highway Fund and Highway Trust Fund to pay for cancellation or modification fees concerning the I-77 contract.

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Tarte said the proposal was technically unconstitutional.

"Taking highway funds for capital projects and penalties is not allowed," explained Tarte in a phone interview with WBTV.

The amendment he proposed Thursday would allow Governor Roy Cooper to pull money from several accounts to pay for the contract modification or cancellation.

"Giving the Secretary of NCDOT and the governor flexibility and additional options of buckets of money where they can use it to cancel the project," said Tarte.

Tarte said that under this amendment, money could be taken from State Transportation Improvement funds or State Street-Aid (Powell Bill) funds among several other options.

"The actual funding plan will have multiple sources," explained Tarte.

The problem is that most of that funding would come from other local road projects in Mecklenburg and Iredell Counties.

"They are drawing a whole lot of amendments and not paying a whole lot of attention to what the actual effects are," said Governor Roy Cooper. "We don't want to confine it all to Mecklenburg County because it could end up hurting some projects here that are very much needed."

Mecklenburg County Commissioner, Jim Puckett, also believes Tarte's amendment will not be supported.

"That is not going to happen. No one is going to give up their projects to fix someone else's," said Puckett. "Until we have the House, the Senate, and NCDOT working together on a agreed upon solution, we are just taking stabs at finding one."

Representative Bradford responded to Senator Tarte's amendment saying, "a majority of legislators will not support a provision that will remove funding for their local district's local road projects to provide funding to modify/terminate the I-77 contract."

Residents of northern Mecklenburg County have been keeping a close eye on the conversations being had at the General Assembly.

Michelle Ferlauto, founder of the Lake Norman Transportation Safety Partnership, spoke to WBTV in an interview Thursday evening.

"It's very exciting. We are all a little skeptical understandably. The community has been down this road before with Raleigh," said Ferlauto.

Tarte still hopes the toll lanes can be done away with altogether.

"The number one problem and concern we have is congestion. The toll lanes will not help congestion," Tarte told WBTV.

Ferlauto doesn't support the toll lane construction, but thinks it is unavoidable at this point.

"I certainly would hope for no tolls, but I just don't think that's a realistic outcome," she said.

House Bill 1029 will now be debated by lawmakers in committee.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is expected to have a recommendation by the end of the summer regarding the future of the project.

A spokesperson released the following statement to WBTV Thursday night concerning the most recent legislation being debated at the General Assembly.

NCDOT continues to work with communities along the corridor to seek options that respond to the concerns of the people in Northern Mecklenburg County, but at the same time do not negatively impact the transportation priorities of other communities.

We are closely following all proposed legislation. This amendment could have additional modifications. Once legislation becomes law, NCDOT will be able to analyze impacts.

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