New report finds taxpayers could pay more than $200 million for I-77 toll lane default

Taxpayers could be on hook for $200 million

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A new report released Tuesday morning by North Carolina Auditor Beth Wood says taxpayers could pay up to $231 million if the company contracted to build and operate the I-77 toll lanes defaulted on its investment.

The report was prepared in response to questions submitted by lawmakers regarding the I-77 toll lanes project.

Specifically, lawmakers asked Wood to investigate a number of allegations concerning the way in which the I-77 contract was awarded.

After conducting her review, Wood said she is confident the process was appropriate.

"This project-- although on the surface didn't seem like it-- was conducted as it should have been," Wood said.

The review conducted by the Auditor's office found, among other things, that all rules, procedures, protocols and guidelines were followed in accordance with state and federal laws during the formal process of awarding the I-77 toll lanes contract. The review also concludes that no vendor was given advantage over another during the bid process.

Additionally, the report finds that there was no basis for state officials to have any concerns with the company contracted to build the toll lanes, Cintra's, history of defaulting on projects.

Two toll projects operated by Cintra have defaulted: the Indiana Toll Road and SH-130 toll road in Texas.

A third toll road, the Chicago Skyway, operated by a joint venture between Cintra and an Australian firm, was sold in 2016 amid concern that the company would default on its loan payments.

WBTV drove SH-130 in February 2016, just a month before Cintra defaulted on that project. At the time, officials with the North Carolina Department of Transportation said that project was an example of Cintra's ability to develop and operate tolling projects.

It declared bankruptcy just a month later.

Previous: Toll Road Troubles: Politicians, experts point to Cintra's history as cautionary tale for NC

The report from Wood's office mentions the Indiana Toll Road and SH-130 but does not include discussion of the Chicago Skyway.

In conducting its review and preparing answers to the questions submitted by the legislature, Wood's office hired Clary Consulting, the same contractor used to conduct an audit regarding the I-77 toll lanes project in 2015.

At the time, the Auditor's use of Clary Consulting came under fire for the company's previous work with NCDOT but Wood said she was confident the company conducted a fair and independent review for this project.

"With the amount of skepticism I approached their initial report and then all the questions I had later, I'm very confident, I feel very good about the fact that the answers they came up with are independent (and) unbiased," she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the Chicago Skyway defaulted on its loans during the time it was operated by Cintra. That information has been corrected to reflect its sale amid speculation of financial troubles.

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