North Carolina established its Turnpike Authority in 2002. That action put the state on a toll road.
In the years since, no one has taken an exit ramp — although Gov. Pat McCrory might wish he could.
The Triangle Expressway is an 18-mile toll route in Durham and Wake counties that’s been completed for three years. That process was smooth driving compared to the turmoil surrounding the Interstate 77 express lanes project in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties — McCrory’s home turf.
In April, the N.C. Department of Transportation signed a contract with Cintra, a Spanish infrastructure developer, to build toll lanes on I-77 north of Charlotte. While the project has been planned for years, local opposition has strengthened, and it led to the defeat of some pro-tolls local leaders in last month’s elections. McCrory seems to be rattled, especially since a former state legislator, Robert Brawley, filed to run against the governor in the Republican primary on a platform of opposition to the toll project. In addition, some current Charlotte-area legislators asked the governor to cancel tolls.
McCrory fired off a letter Dec. 14 to the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, asking it to reconsider the toll project but warning that backing away could incur penalties. He seemed to be dropping the weight of the decision on local authorities.
The Department of Transportation also issued a statement saying:
“The governor neither requested this project nor would it be appropriate for him to cancel the contract based on a request from four representatives, without clear direction from the local elected officials who requested and approved the I-77 Express Lanes project on behalf of the Northern Mecklenburg County towns.
“In addition, the governor does not have the authority, without legislative approval, to pay the associated penalties for sudden cancellation.”
Penalties for canceling the $647 million contract could be as high as $100 million.
Passing the buck isn’t just an expression.
But the state negotiated and signed the contract, presumably aware of the penalties. McCrory didn’t initiate the project, but he has moved it forward — as he should have.
Toll projects like this one offer a way for the state to build additional highway capacity that it otherwise couldn’t accomplish for many years. The private partner pays most of the cost for construction and operations and recovers its investment by collecting tolls.
The projects provide additional lanes or new, alternate routes. They don’t convert existing highways to toll roads. If motorists choose to use them, they pay for the privilege. The toll is a user fee, but a voluntary one. Otherwise, the state might have to raise taxes to afford these projects.
McCrory has put forward ambitious plans for improving transportation infrastructure. He knows a strong economy depends on efficient transportation. Toll lanes can contribute to moving traffic faster, but there’s always a cost.
He shouldn’t distance himself from a sound strategy to increase highway capacity, nor should he shift responsibility, and political accountability, to local governments. We’re all on the same road, and we need to keep the traffic moving.