Evidence that NCDOT swayed CRTPO Vote
In a series of emails obtained by Widen I77 it appears NCDOT timed a press release and worked behind the scenes to deliberately influence an important vote by the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO). The press release and follow up communications were calculated to make it seem as if financial close had already happened when it apparently had not. Financial close was a key consideration in determining if CRTPO would adopt a resolution requesting a delay and subsequent review of the I-77 toll project.
After every county and municipality went on record against I-77 tolls, proponents (including Governor McCrory) pointed to CRTPO’s support as evidence the region was still in favor of the project. Thus, an about-face by CRTPO could have eliminated a key argument.
However, CRTPO is hardly a representative body. Votes are weighted by town population, with the result that Charlotte’s vote counts for 46%. That vote is cast by a single delegate, currently City Councilwoman Vi Lyles. Overriding Charlotte requires all but two of the remaining 26 delegates to vote contrary, an electoral impossibility. So Charlotte’s vote was- and is- the only one of any consequence on CRTPO.
Prior to their May 20th meeting at least two CRTPO delegates considered introducing a resolution requesting NCDOT delay the financial close of the contract until an independent review could be completed. This would have followed similar and in some cases stronger resolutions passed by the Lake Norman towns and Iredell and Mecklenburg counties.
However, at 4:59 pm on May 19th- the day before the CRTPO meeting- NCDOT issued a press release saying they had “completed financial requirements for locally requested I-77 express lanes project.” The press release never stated Cintra had achieved financial close, and there was significant confusion about what “completing the financial requirements” actually meant.
Despite that curiously timed bit of ambiguity, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution that evening requesting a delay.
NCDOT Contacts CRTPO
Within minutes of the press release NCDOT went to work on Lyles. Less than an hour after issuance NCDOT Chair Ned Curran and NCDOT spokesman Warren Cooksey both forwarded the press release to Lyles. Cooksey added “the attached press release may make the proposed CRTPO resolution moot.”
That evening Lyles replied to Cooksey that despite the press release, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners went ahead and unanimously voted for a delay/review anyway. “I thought the action (NCDOT’s press release) closed the door on any consideration of a delay. Is that correct?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s correct,” Cooksey responded the following morning, May 20th. “There now can be no delay of financial close.”
Read that last sentence carefully. Cooksey implies that financial close had not yet occurred! Further, Cooksey’s response makes it seem as if NCDOT had no control over the process, a direct contradiction to the boasting press release. Cooksey also offered to supply Lyles with talking points for the upcoming CRTPO meeting. Deputy Secretary Tennyson was scheduled to present the toll lane case.
That afternoon Lyles sent a follow up email to CRTPO staffers asking for confirmation that there could not be any delay.
Danny Pleasant, Director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation responded, “it’s unclear to me what delay is being requested. The contract has been on the department’s website for 10 months providing abundant time for anyone interested to review it.”
Of course, the contract has been under scrutiny for quite some time. Widen I-77 has reviewed and questioned the contract for two years. In June 2014 a majority of LKN commissioners sent a memo to the governor asking for a delay and contractual review. And, as mentioned previously, every municipality had asked for such a review. So we wonder what Mr. Pleasant could be unclear about.
Lyles’ request was forwarded to NCDOT Division 10 Engineer Louis Mitchell. In an apparent contradiction to Cooksey, Mitchell said “in layman’s terms, the financial closing has occurred….” This raises the question: if financial close occurred, why didn’t the press release state that directly? Further, why the “in layman’s terms” qualification?
Mitchell then went on to say in cancelling the contract NCDOT “could/would be liable for costs in the vicinity of $100 million.” It is the first instance we can find of the $100 million number. (For the record, WI77’s position is the cancellation penalty is ZERO. A subject for another blog post.)
Three minutes after Mitchell sent his email, Curran responded with some tips about what Lyles would like NCDOT to present at the CRTPO meeting:
Lyles Initiates Charlotte City Council Discussion; Phipps calls for security
At the same time Lyles was questioning Cooksey she also fired off an email to the Charlotte City Council:
“Before the completion of the financial requirements, there would likely have been a request for a delay for review of the contract with (toll operator) Mobility Partners. With this action (the press release) by NCDOT, I do not know how those who object to the project will want to proceed.”
She went on to enumerate Charlotte’s historical support for the toll lanes and noted NCDOT Chair Ned Curran “stated this is the final action before construction begins.” She then asked if there were any questions.
The Charlotte City Council’s response ranged from God-like to god awful.
On the God-like side, Mayor Pro-tem Michael Barnes noted that while Charlotte had supported the project since 2007 “there are certainly reasons for us to consider supporting action to delay the project now.” He questioned how the NCDOT could have incurred a $100 million cancellation penalty before the contract was finalized. Councilman Kenny Smith agreed.
On the god-awful side, Councilman Greg Phipps’ response speaks for itself:
With the May 19th press release NCDOT accomplished exactly what they wanted: they convinced the only CRTPO vote that mattered that there would be no point in requesting a delay/review of the toll project.
CRTPO never formally discussed any such resolution at their May 20th meeting.