In a stunning development, the NC House today approved an I77 reserve fund in a unanimous 113-0 vote.
The bill sets aside up to $300 million out of the Highway Fund and Highway Trust Fund surpluses to pay for any “costs, damages or monetary penalties” due to the “cancellation or modification of the Comprehensive Agreement….”
It further says that “funds are appropriated for that purpose” and no other.
You may recall our dismay that I77 compensation could only be paid for by an “express allocation.” Well, it looks like this could be that allocation. Any disbursements will be paid for (in whole or in part) by ten years of toll revenues. More on that in a moment. The cancellation or modification must occur before July 2023.
The text was run as part of an amendment to HB 1029, and the primary sponsor was Rep John Bradford. Word has it that Bradford held out his budget veto vote until he got the amendment. Whatever the reason, it appears to have satisfied the big “how do we pay for this?” question.
As evidence, House Transportation Chair John Torbett spoke in favor of the bill, as did toll advocates John Fraley and Bill Brawley. Brawley, you may remember, is the Representative from Matthews and the author of HB 514, the municipal charter school bill. He demonstrated his formidable legislative skills in shepherding that bill through the House. He did the same with the P3 bill way back in 2011.
While this is undoubtedly stunningly good news, there are a couple of caveats.
First, the bill has passed its second reading. NC law requires three readings, and that has yet to be calendared. Six democrats opposed the second reading, and this is usually indicative of their wanting an additional amendment to the final reading. With this much support, though, it is highly unlikely the bill would not pass the House.
Which leads to the second concern: it must pass the Senate. Longtime toll warriors may recall a similar situation when the House passed a contract cancellation bill that did not even make it into a Senate committee. That bill passed with bipartisan support, but not unanimously.
It would almost be unconscionable for the Senate to ignore a bill that unanimously passed the House. Wouldn’t it?
Third, the fund would be paid for by highway fund surpluses. It could very well be the Highway Fund and the Highway Trust Fund never run a surplus in the future, although they have in the past. Mitigating this concern is the Build NC bond, which injects $3 billion into the NCDOT for roads.
Fourth, any unpaid disbursements will be paid for be reducing the Division 10 maintenance funds to Mecklenburg county over a period of 20 years. So, it appears locals will be paying for a mistake made in Raleigh. This, too, can be mitigated by the amount allocated, and things can change in 10 -20 years. This is not worth falling on our sword, as the important thing is to get the contract cancelled.
There are many moving parts to this, but the good news is I77 toll cancellation continues to be discussed and debated in the halls on Jones Street.
Here is the amendment: