As recently as this past October state officials were saying the I-77 toll financials made absolute sense, proposals were due at the end of this year, and construction could start as early as Spring 2014.  The I-77 toll lanes had a tectonic inevitability, at least in the minds of advocates.  “Tolls are a done deal” was a common refrain on the campaign stump.

But lately new fault lines have opened up. Though slight tremors right now, we’re wondering if the toll plan will suffer at a Richter-scale shakeup next year.

First, the proposal submittal date has been delayed. Again. Now proposals are due in March, with the contract award in May. You may recall when we first started this blog that proposals were due back in June. That was pushed to October, then December, then January.  In fact the I-77 toll plan has been one of continual delays.  Originally proposed in 2010, construction was supposed to have been completed by 2013.

In addition to raising serious questions about how well the contract negotiations are proceeding, these delays undermine one of the main justifications for tolls, namely that we can get them now.  We have been listening to the “tolls now” rationale for nearly four years.  Construction completion remains three years away, a mirage that continually recedes into the future.

Second, we’ve noticed a repositioning among some state officials.  In November Senator Jeff Tarte mentioned he was looking to form a commission to review the P3 contract.  Most noteworthy, he talked about including staunch toll opponents Dave Gilroy and Danny Phillips as part of the team. Including those two sends a clear message Tarte is looking for a critical review, not a rubber stamp.  Also, in a departure from past conversations, in recent Facebook posts Tarte has proposed alternative transportation funding in lieu of tolls.  At recent meeting he publicly questioned if tolls are the right way to fund our roads in the future.

This raises serious speculation. Are the financials not panning out after all? Are the private companies demanding even more taxpayer dollars to “buy down” the toll revenues they must generate year after year?  Do the private companies want the taxpayer shouldering even more risk?  A “yes” answer to any of these obliterates the remaining justifications for tolling, i.e. the private company assuming risk, and leveraging public money with private capital.

We’ve said from the jump the financials make no sense. According to one commissioner’s estimates, toll revenues would have to exceed $30M/yr.  That works out to over $200 annually for every man, woman and child in the Lake Norman region.  Perhaps the private companies are just now figuring this out.

As the reality of the gravity-defying financials begins to sink in, we hope our elected officials will take a second look at this plan and engage state and NCDOT officials to develop a general purpose alternative. (There is a path forward without CRTMPO (formerly MUMPO), but that’s a subject for another blog post.) The revamped transportation funding process rewards cost-effective projects that relieve congestion with a high priority.  We can think of none more deserving.

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