Opponents of optional toll lanes on I-77 from Charlotte to Lake Norman will have another day in court Wednesday as they try to stop the project. The state Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments in a lawsuit against the state and its private contractor.
NCDOT signed a contract three years ago with I-77 Mobility Partners - a subsidiary of Spanish construction giant Cintra – to build and operate the toll lanes.
That was despite opposition from some citizens and business groups in the Lake Norman area. They want the state to widen the road without tolls.
Two years ago, the anti-toll group Widen I-77 sued to halt construction. The suit argued the 50-year contract violates North Carolina's constitution by letting a private company set tolls. It also argued that the toll project fails to serve a public purpose.
But last year, a superior court judge dismissed the suit. Judge W. Osmond Smith III ruled that canceling the contract should be up to the DOT or the General Assembly, not the court.
So Widen I-77 appealed to the state Court of Appeals. In court filings, the group says the judge erred in finding that the contract and the state law allowing the deal were legal.
"The heart of the argument is that project doesn't serve the public interest," Widen I-77 leader Kurt Naas said Tuesday. "You're allowing a private company to profit off public misery for 50 years."
NCDOT officials have defended the contract and warned that cancellation could cost millions of dollars. They also say the state can't afford to widen the road without help from the contractor, which is paying for most of the $655 million cost.
A decision on the appeal could take several months. Meanwhile, construction has already started and NCDOT says the optional toll lanes should be ready by the end of 2018.
Drivers will be able use the lanes for a fee, which will rise and fall according to the amount of traffic. The contract requires the lanes to maintain a speed of at least 45 mph. Tolls would be charged using radio transponders that drivers purchase in advance.
Not everyone will have to pay the toll. The lanes will be free for commuter buses and emergency vehicles as well as carpoolers with at least three passengers, and motorcycles.
The project website at i77express.com has updates on construction and details on how the lanes will work.