Road Worrier

Road Worrier: GOP, environmentalists mount fiscal challenges to DOT toll projects

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comOctober 1, 2012 

The Triangle Expressway opened for business this year as North Carolina’s first modern toll road. It could be the state’s last toll road for a long time.

Because of mounting opposition from environmental lawyers and Republican legislators, all five toll roads and bridges under development by the state Department of Transportation now face big challenges in the General Assembly or the courts – or both.

Republicans have scheduled a showdown this week in their push to kill the $650 million Mid-Currituck bridge, a toll project long favored by coastal Democrats to speed the beach drive for tourists who visit North Carolina’s northern Outer Banks. And Republicans are not fans of two troubled toll roads planned near Wilmington and Gastonia.

Meanwhile, environmental lawyers are mounting a broad challenge to the state’s way of justifying the need for major toll roads and bridges.

The environmentalists and Republicans are working independently, and they do not entirely agree about which projects should be stopped. But together they have cast considerable doubt over prospects for toll roads and bridges in North Carolina. Republicans are still steamed about a pair of false letters, drafted in June under pressure from an aide to Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, that misrepresented DOT’s position on funding needs for the Currituck and Gastonia projects. Two legislators wanted to make sure there was money for the projects in the 2013 budget, even though DOT won’t be ready to spend the money before 2014.

Late this summer, in an exchange of correspondence with state turnpike director David Joyner, the four Republican heads of the House-Senate Transportation Oversight Committee warned that DOT was rushing into a risky and expensive commitment with the Mid-Currituck Bridge.

They scrubbed a planned outing in Asheville so they could debate the bridge with Joyner at a committee meeting to be held Friday in Raleigh.

Mid-Currituck would be North Carolina’s first big public-private partnership venture, planned in concert with a private consortium that hopes to turn a profit by collecting bridge tolls for 50 years.

“I think the Currituck project smells of political cronyism,” Sen. Bill Rabon, a Brunswick County Republican and Senate Transportation chairman, told the Road Worrier.

The General Assembly has authorized DOT to plan and build six big roads and bridges as toll projects. Rabon and other House and Senate transportation leaders are reconsidering this list.

Rabon supports the $725 million Monroe Bypass in Union County, which he says would improve mobility and relieve congestion on U.S. 74 east of Charlotte. And he’s glad to see TriEx up and running.

“Both of them are extremely necessary,” Rabon said. He said the other toll projects “lack the value to the state” that he sees in TriEx and the Monroe Bypass.

The Southern Environmental Law Center changed the toll-road landscape in May, when its lawyers won a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that snarled plans for the Monroe Bypass. The court excoriated DOT for obscuring project costs and benefits, in a bogus study that did not fairly compare what conditions would be like with and without the proposed toll road. A new study was ordered.

Now the group is expanding its approach in a lawsuit to stop the $900 million Garden Parkway near Gastonia. Turnpike officials have adjusted their timetables for this and other projects, in anticipation of lawsuits that will force delays.

David Farren, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said environmentalists are moving away from challenges about endangered species and air quality, to aim more at a simple justification for building a big road: Why is it needed, and what good will it do?

“We’ve shifted our focus at SELC to these fiscal issues,” Farren said. “That’s going to be the fulcrum on which these policy decisions are made.”

Here’s an update on the other projects:

• TriEx Southeast Extension, extending 540 across southern Wake County. A path favored by DOT would threaten protected wetlands, and the legislature refuses to allow study of alternate routes that could hurt neighborhoods in Garner. Planning has stalled while project backers struggle to satisfy a demand from environmental regulators for a feasible alternative to the wetlands path.

• Cape Fear Skyway, a $1 billion bridge and bypass in Wilmington to relieve an obsolete bridge. Environmental and traffic problems and costs are high, and projections for toll-paying drivers are low. It has few champions. “The Skyway is still a pie in the sky,” Rabon said.

• Garden Parkway, to alleviate Interstate 85 traffic west of Charlotte. The project was undermined by a DOT study that predicted it would funnel jobs into neighboring South Carolina. Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Gaston County Republican who serves with Rabon as a co-chair of the transportation oversight committee, won election by campaigning against the parkway.

Although tolls are collected from drivers, taxpayers also would help pay for these roads. Projected toll collections aren’t sufficient to repay what DOT must borrow to build and operate the toll road.

The General Assembly pledged to cover the TriEx toll gap with annual payments of $25 million, for an expected 30 years. The gap cost for Mid-Currituck has been projected at $28 million for 40 years.

“That’s to move just 16,000 people a day, most of whom are not North Carolinians,” Rabon said. “It defies my imagination to think that’s a good project.”

Joyner said he has assured Harrington and Rabon that he understands their concerns and that DOT will follow the legislature’s wishes.

“The General Assembly has asked us repeatedly for five or six years to move forward with the Mid-Currituck project,” Joyner said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”

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