State Auditor says N.C. DOT handled Charlotte toll-project effectively

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The Interstate 77 toll-road project changed the course of state history, with anger among north Mecklenburg County residents contributing to Gov. Pat McCrory’s 10,000-vote loss to Roy Cooper in 2016.

Cooper blamed the former Charlotte mayor for supporting the project, which would be costly and hurt businesses. The issue siphoned Charlotte-area votes away from McCrory, contributing to his defeat. Toll opponents have hoped that Cooper’s victory would cause the state to take over the project and eliminate the toll plans.

Beth WoodsN.C. Office of the State Auditor

Beth Wood

But State Auditor Beth Wood concluded this week that the project was handled properly based on a thorough investigation by an outside consultant.

The $650 million toll plan had broad initial support from Mecklenburg business and political leaders, many of whom live in south Charlotte. Response from those living in north Mecklenburg —  most affected by the plan — was initially limited, partly because there was little publicity about the situation.

The N.C. Department of Transportation signed an agreement for the first toll project in the Charlotte area. It enabled a unit of Spanish construction giant Cintra to build and finance lanes from downtown Charlotte as far north as Mooresville under a 50-year lease, with toll proceeds used to pay down the project debt. The purpose was to speed construction and reduce congestion in the fast-growing area rather than wait for the state to expand the highway. The toll lanes are expected to open later this year.

Once residents of north Mecklenburg realized the project scope and commuter costs, they became incensed and have continued fighting the plan ever since. Leaders of the anti-toll effort have accused the N.C. DOT of mishandling the project.

So legislators asked Wood to study the situation. She concluded there was nothing improper in the N.C. DOT’s work. We talked with her Wednesday.

What did you think of the allegations of wrongdoing?

I’ve been in state government for 22 years. I wanted to dig in because I’ve been ashamed at how things have been handled in the past involving some big state contracts. It bothers me that our citizens don’t have faith in our state government.

And here was another project where the people are skeptical and don’t believe it was handled right.

So, I approached it as if everything said about the project in a negative way was true. We were thorough and we concluded that this project was handled as it should have been.

You are a Democrat auditing the Democrat-led DOT? Is that credible?

Politics doesn’t factor in at all. I’m just as hard on my own party. It isn’t about the politics, it’s about the issues. We do a thorough audit, and we report what we find. I can’t help, and don’t care which side of the aisle it falls on.

Where did the questions for the audit come from?

Legislators. They had been told these things and they don’t have the time or resources to dig down in and look at them. So it was handed off to me.

The General Assembly has seen my work, and they know I’m not political.

What did you make of the findings?

I’m glad to see that a project this big didn’t have all of the issues and allegations and questions that brought about this investigation. I’m glad that this project was handled by the book.

Anything else to add?

I need to emphasize that my report and audit has nothing to  do with advocating for toll roads or opposing then. We didn’t look at the question of whether this project makes sense for that area or if it was economically viable. Nobody has studied that over and above the DOT.  We just investigated and audited the questions around this project.

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