Judge denies injunction to halt I-77 toll lane project

Published: Mar. 6, 2015 at 1:22 AM EST|Updated: Apr. 4, 2015 at 8:22 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A judge denied an injunction that could have put a halt to the widening of Interstate 77 Thursday, according to lawyers representing Mobility Partners, the contractor for the I-77 toll project.

A state Superior Court judge heard motions Tuesday on behalf of the Widen I-77 group, who were trying to stop the widening of Interstate 77 in Mecklenburg County, but did not make a decision until Thursday.

Widen I-77 acknowledged the denial of the injunction Thursday and said they were planning to meet with their legal team Friday morning to see what the next steps could be.

Widen I-77 filed suit against NCDOT and Mobility Partners. The group was seeking a court order to stop the project. I-77 Mobility Partners had also filed its own motion asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit because "it has no basis in law."

In a courtroom at the Alamance County Courthouse in Graham, Judge Osmand Smith, III, began hearing the motions around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The state argued that Widen I-77 has no standing, pursuing litigation for personal benefit of members. The state asked Smith to strike the motion for an injunction. Smith ruled the Widen I-77 group had standing to proceed.

The NCDOT project to widen I-77 would include toll lanes to widen 26 miles of the interstate north of Charlotte.

Kurt Nass of the Widen I-77 group was the plaintiff's only witness. Nass presented elaborate and detailed cost analysis that he said proves the toll road would be much more expensive in the long run than hiring a private contractor to build general purpose lanes.

Nass said the widening is really only needed in the Cornelius area, not for the 26 miles north of Charlotte. He said toll roads only benefit the wealthy. "If you are wealthy enough to use the road then you have solved the congestion problem."

Nass also pointed out that if revenues for the toll lanes fail to meet expectations, the cost would fall on tax payers. Nass estimated that the cost using the toll roads plan could top $193 million, while building free, general purpose lanes over the same time period would cost $100 million.

Nass estimates the cost of the toll will be around $20 round trip. Between 30 and 40 members of the group were in the courtroom Tuesday.

The state DOT contends that the project should go forward as a long-term solution for one of "the most congested roadways in the state." The project would allow for drivers to choose either the free lanes or pay to use express lanes.

During closing arguments, the attorney for the state argued that if the current plan with the toll roads were stopped, he warned it could be quite a while before any other plan would come forward to ease congestion on I-77.

"If they don't have this project built now," the attorney said, "They're not going to have it for at least 15 years, if at all."

The state also pointed out that if the project were not delayed, there would be 8,000 jobs created if construction begins this summer.

The attorney for Widen I-77 argued to the judge that the injunction would give the state time to reassess the project, saying that the project with the toll roads would only benefit the contractors and "rich folks who can use the road."

At the end of the day the judge said he would have a decision by the end of the week. That decision came Thursday evening when the injunction was denied.

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