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Spanish developer denied; $2.1B plan moves forward through state

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(The Center Square) – State officials are forging ahead with the state’s $2.1 billion plan for express lanes on I-77 through Charlotte that may include tolls after rejecting a private proposal for the work this week.

North Carolina Department of Transportation officials told the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization on Wednesday highway planners rejected a proposal from Cintra. The a Spain-based transportation developer manages I-77 toll lanes between I-277 and Mooresville, would have built tolled express lanes on the same interstate through Charlotte to South Carolina.

Cintra submitted the unsolicited proposal in February 2022, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation worked with regional planning panel to review it and offer a comparative analysis this spring. State law requires approval from local planners before proceeding with toll roads.

On Aug. 10, a working group of state and regional highway planners recommended against moving forward with the proposal, NCDOT official Brett Canipe told the regional group Wednesday.

“That proposal to widen I-77 South was not materially different than what we are already looking at in our own step,” he said, referring to the project that’s included in the DOT’s statewide plan. “There’s been an ongoing effort to develop concepts to cost out to determine what would be best for I-77 south of the city, no matter what the delivery mechanism was.”

“This proposal was essentially proposing to accomplish the same thing,” he said. “So based on that, we’ve decided not to move forward.”

DOT is continuing a separate comparative analysis into the project started in February that’s expected to result in options presented in April 2024 for a decision. The regional planning board will weigh a potential public-private partnership option that would include toll roads against a traditional public option through the NC Turnpike Authority that would utilize taxpayer funds through DOT.

“We think we’ll be near a conclusion on into next spring or at least have information to draw a conclusion from,” Canipe said.

Turnpike officials have said building express lanes using traditional state funding would likely require significantly more time than a public-private partnership with tolls, possibly stretching beyond 2040.

Despite the decision not to move forward with Cintra’s plan, the company will not be excluded from consideration if officials decide to go with a public-private partnership, Canipe said. If officials had moved forward, it would have automatically given the company status as a qualified bidder on the project.

“Quite honestly, given the sensitivity around Cintra, I think that’s good news,” Charlotte City Councilman Ed Driggs said. “I like the idea that they are going to be on a completely level playing field with any other bidder and not have a big advantage from having submitted the bid.”

Cintra’s I-77 toll lanes near Lake Norman drew considerable public backlash when they were selected by DOT in 2014.

The initial $2.1 billion estimate for the I-77 south project is expected to increase significantly, Canipe said, based on inflation with ongoing projects. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis presented Wednesday pegged construction inflation nationwide in May at more than 10%.

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