By Kurt Naas
Last week, Widen I-77 published the results of NCDOT’s traffic and revenue study for the I-77 toll lane project.
The million-dollar study (containing 130 pages of expert analysis) concluded the project would support $9 tolls from Mooresville to Charlotte during rush hour and over $11 for the return trip. In fact, $9 is about the going rate for tolling operations in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Antonio, Washington, D.C., Miami, Atlanta and Houston.
But the NCDOT quickly walked back the $9 number, saying it was “outdated” and tolls would average around $2.
They have yet to provide any supporting analysis. Instead, they tell us the “new” numbers are proprietary and won’t be released until after the contract is signed.
This follows a pattern: The NCDOT changes the narrative when the facts become distasteful, and they withhold any negative information. For instance:
• In a recent press release, Transportation Secretary Tony Tata touted the project as a “comprehensive solution to existing and future congestion.” But their own internal analysis shows commute times in the general-use lanes doubling within the next 20 years and rush hour traffic crawling at 15 miles per hour for an 11-mile stretch.
• In their Frequently Asked Questions page, they state toll lanes cost only 10 percent more than general-purpose lanes. But their own budget shows tolling-specific costs for I-77 are than one third of construction costs.
• In their official report to the legislature they state the private company’s project in Texas had a “significant amount of cash on hand.” They neglect to mention that months ago the project was downgraded to junk bond status and today faces imminent bankruptcy a mere two years after it opened.
• The same report states Cintra (the private company) will bear “substantial financial risk” for the project. Yet all bonds issued for the project ($315 million) are backed by the taxpayer. The taxpayer will also subsidize any revenue shortfalls up to $75 million. While it’s true Cintra could lose their equity contribution (about $235 million), the contract contains so many exceptions it’s unlikely.
These and other issues prompted a majority of Lake Norman town commissioners – including all three mayors pro-tem – to send a memo to Gov. Pat McCrory requesting the NCDOT postpone the preliminary contract signing until they could obtain some answers. Sen. Jeff Tarte emailed Tata with a similar request. But Tata brushed aside their concerns saying there was “no foundation” for any delay.
All of this should make us very wary of any future claims by the NCDOT. Trust is something that must be earned, and they haven’t. Our elected officials should be highly skeptical.
Yet, despite this trail of misinformation and callous disregard, the Lake Norman mayors urged their respective boards to “trust the process,” saying the “only experts reside at NCDOT.”
We’re puzzled by their blind support of a process so obviously broken.
While we’re encouraged Tarte has called for an independent review, we’re uncertain what this will accomplish. We can’t help but wonder if Tarte’s review will be an exercise in window dressing. Nothing has changed.
What’s really needed is straight talk, not blind trust or more studies. It’s time to start trusting the citizens more and the bureaucrats and paid consultants less. After all, we’re the ones who will be sitting in traffic or shelling out for tolls.
Kurt Naas is a member of Widen I-77, a citizen’s group dedicated to widening I-77 through Lake Norman with general-purpose lanes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.