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Ford, Warren want toll lane contract for I-77 canceled

By Josh Bergeron 

josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Rowan County’s two members of the NC House have joined the opposition to tolls on Interstate 77.

The toll lanes project has attracted significant opposition from residents of Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, where the lanes would be located on I-77. Building the toll lanes would cost several hundred million dollars — $88 million coming from the Department of Transportation — and some have speculated canceling the contract would cost as much as $300 million. Supporters of the lanes, which are already under construction, say the additional lanes would help reduce congestion.

When the North Carolina General Assembly convened last week for its short session, Reps. Harry Warren, R-77, and Carl Ford, R-76, signed on as co-sponsors of a bill that would cancel the toll lanes contract. For his part, Ford says the most significant concern is the company hired to oversee the toll lanes — I-77 Mobility Partners, which is a subsidiary of Spain-based Cintra.

“Everywhere they go, they fly out of coop,” Ford said. “They get their billions of dollars and get out of it.”

He referred to a bankruptcy in Texas by another Cintra subsidiary as an example of why to be cautious about I-77 tolls.

“We need to stop it and stop it now,” he said. “Will there be a penalty? Sure there will be, but it will cost more in the long run.”

When asked about canceling the toll contract, Warren mentioned local support for the proposal and cited March’s gubernatorial primary race as an example of local opposition. Incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory carried every county in North Carolina’s primaries, but challenger C. Robert Brawley fared far better in counties near I-77 than other parts of the state. Brawley, an opponent of toll lanes on I-77, received 38 percent of the vote in Iredell County and nearly 16 percent in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and Rowan counties. By comparison Brawley received less than 10 percent of the vote in most other North Carolina counties.

“That’s a reflection of how badly people are opposed to the project,” he said.

In addition to local opposition, Warren said he supports the bill because the toll lanes contract is “horribly weighted in favor of the company.” If the company defaults, Warren claimed 80 percent of the project’s debt would be absorbed by state government.

He also countered the claim that toll lanes would reduce congestion. The I-77 corridor is expected to continue its growth and 18-wheelers wouldn’t be able to use toll lanes. The growth and fact that trucks must use the free lanes would only add to the congestion.

“Toll lanes don’t address the congestion problem,” he said.

Warren and Ford are co-sponsors of a bill whose primary sponsors are: Reps. Charles Jeter, a Mecklenburg County Republican; Mike Hager, a Republican who represents Burke and Rutherford counties; and John Bradford, a Mecklenburg Republican. Along with its three primary sponsors, the bill has more than 20 co-sponsors. A similar bill was introduced by Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat.

The most significant difference between the two measures is the entity that’s responsible for paying any damages. Cotham’s measure would require the N.C. Department of Transportation pay any penalties associated with canceling toll lanes. Jeter’s bill doesn’t make it clear who would pay for penalties associated with the cancellation.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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