- Associated Press - Friday, November 13, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Gov. Pat McCrory doesn’t have the authority to put a halt to proposed toll lanes for Interstate 77 north of Charlotte, the state transportation secretary said Friday.

The secretary responded after four Mecklenburg County lawmakers and nearly 20 local leaders appeared at a news conference to voice opposition to the toll lanes. State Sen. Jeff Tarte read a 2½-page letter he sent to McCrory asking him to cancel the project. Sen. David Curtis, and Reps. Charles Jeter and John Bradford, who also represent Mecklenburg County, also signed the letter.

The four lawmakers say the road won’t be able to handle heavy trucks and some local businesses along the highway would suffer. Construction on the project is set to begin Monday.

“The Governor does not have the authority, without legislative approval to pay the associated penalties for sudden cancellation,” state Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson said in responding to the letter.

Tennyson said 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.”

Also, Tennyson said the letter was “riddled with inaccurate and false claims” and promised a more detailed response later Friday.

Tarte and the lawmakers said their opposition stems from the recent discovery of new information, including asphalt too weak to handle the projected truck traffic. According to Tarte, the base for the lane would be half the required depth to handle the trucks.

“These lanes would have to be ground to the base and completely rebuilt from scratch,” Tarte wrote.

The letter said the Transportation Department originally indicated that maximum taxpayer liability would not exceed $158 million. Tarte said new information showed a possibility that the entire project would fall on taxpayers if designer and builder Cintra defaulted.

The lawmakers also said while some businesses would benefit, others would suffer.

“Once the managed lanes are implemented, travelers using the toll lanes will not be able to access restaurants, gas stations and hotels at multiple exits along I-77,” Tarte said. “This is not sustainable for small business owners.”

The group said it is considering seeking a temporary restraining order to halt construction.

Jeter said lawmakers planned to plead their case to McCrory in person.

“We’ve got to be able to convince him that stopping this, stopping doing the wrong thing, is the right thing,” he said.

Tennyson wrote that McCrory “welcomes constructive dialogue, viable ideas and realistic solutions” and that he looked forward to meeting with the lawmakers.

North Carolina has signed a 50-year contract with Cintra. The project calls for two toll lanes between the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and exit 28 in Cornelius. One toll lane would continue in each direction between exits 28 and 36.

Mecklenburg County Commissioners voted 7-2 in June to call on McCrory and transportation officials to cancel the contract. A resolution adopted by the commissioners asked the governor to explore alternative ways to pay for widening I-77 without using tolls.

At the time, McCrory said it was too late to change the contract. He said it would cost up to $100 million to cancel the contract.

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