GOP legislators attack plans for seven-mile, $650 million Outer Banks toll bridge

$650M project to be costly to taxpayers

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comOctober 5, 2012 

— Republican legislators at a committee meeting Friday said the state could not afford to contribute to a planned $650 million toll bridge from mainland Currituck County to the northern Outer Banks.

The co-chairs of a House-Senate transportation oversight committee wouldn’t say when or whether they’ll vote on the Mid-Currituck Bridge, which would be built in partnership with an international consortium of private developers. But members argued against committing the state to pay as much as $28 million a year for four decades to cover an expected gap between toll collections – mostly from tourists – and project costs.

“The problem we have as a state is we don’t have the revenue we need to take care of the infrastructure we currently have, whether it’s Interstate 95 or other roads,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, an Avery County Republican. “It’s just amazing to me the creative ways we’ve come up with to finance and borrow additional money in different areas.”

Transportation officials said the state’s partnership with private developers actually will push the taxpayer cost higher, not lower. And toll collections will cover only 30 to 40 percent of the project cost – compared to a 60 percent share expected from drivers who use the Triangle Expressway in Wake County.

“From that perspective, it’s hard to justify,” Sen. Neal Hunt, a Wake County Republican, said after the meeting. “I know they have needs down there. But, dadgummit, we have lots of needs in the state.”

Acting on instructions from the legislature a few years ago, the state Department of Transportation is planning the Mid-Currituck Bridge as a public-private partnership with a Madrid-based consortium that builds bridges around the world. In exchange for taking profits from toll collections that would continue for 50 years, the private partner would carry much of the risk that the bridge – dependent on a healthy tourism economy – could turn out to be a financial flop.

David Joyner, the DOT turnpike director, said that reduced risk is worth an extra $3 million a year that taxpayers would pay.

“Is this a good deal?” Joyner asked committee members. “You’ve got to help us decide. We think it is.”

State and coastal agencies have been talking since 1975 about a bridge across the Currituck Sound, to ease weekend and summer traffic jams on U.S. 158 and N.C. 12. At seven miles, it would be North Carolina’s longest bridge.

Supporters say it would cut 37 miles and as much as two hours from beach trips. Vacationers and others would pay variable tolls projected to reach as high as $25 per trip during peak hours, with discounts for frequent users.

Elected officials and legislative candidates from both political parties in Dare and Currituck counties like the proposed bridge, and so do out-of-state residents who endure long traffic delays on their vacation trips to the Currituck Banks.

“As far as I know, this is the most important project – and has been for 20 years – in northeastern North Carolina,” said Rep. Bill Owens Jr., a Perquimans County Democrat. “It’s important to our economy, and it’s something that’s been worked on by Democrats and Republicans. … It needs to go forward.”

But a sheaf of letters and emails delivered to the legislature revealed sharp divisions among coastal residents. And the Mid-Currituck Bridge earned low-priority ratings when DOT engineers compared it to other needs.

Sen. Bill Rabon, a Brunswick County Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said he’ll wait to see how the bridge project looks next spring, after as many as 50 newly elected legislators take their seats.

He expressed doubts about a 40-year commitment to pay a combined $123 million a year for the Mid-Currituck Bridge and two other pending toll projects – enough money, he said, to widen and overhaul I-95. The other two are the Garden Parkway in Gaston County and the Cape Fear Skyway in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

“The numbers just don’t add up on these turnpike projects,” Rabon said. “I wish they did. The one in my area is as bad as this one.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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