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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Toll road opponents shouldn’t let hopes get too high

So N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson is taking a trip Monday to Texas to learn why a toll road between San Antonio and central Texas filed for bankruptcy this week. The move gives fresh hope to opponents of Ferrovial SA’s plans to add toll lanes on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte.

Here’s what Tennyson is going to learn: There are very few similarities between the two projects.

The Texas toll road was built parallel to super-busy Interstate 35, which runs from Mexico to Minneapolis and is one of the great business corridors in the U.S. Among its many bottlenecks is the inner city of Austin, Texas, which has been one of the fastest growing metro areas in the U.S. over the past decade. Imagine terrible Interstate 285 drive-time traffic in Atlanta – that’s what happens every morning and evening on I-35 in Austin.

But central Texas is full of undeveloped grassland, not far from Austin and San Antonio, so the Texas DOT hoped a toll road running parallel to Interstate 35 — but 10-20 miles east —  would relieve some of Austin’s traffic burdens. Ferrovial’s Cintra subsidiary won the contract to build the project and bonds were floated to pay the bill, with repayments coming from toll revenues.

Unfortunately for TxDOT and Ferrovial, truckers and citizens prefer to sit in horrible traffic from Austin to San Antonio rather than waste time driving farther west to get on SH 130, then pay $15 or $20 in tolls to use the road.

Except in extreme rush-hour periods, picking SH130 doesn’t make a lot of sense for most drivers. It will some day when development has reached the SH130 corridor, but that is years off. Those  SH130 bonds quickly became junk bonds.

The story is completely different in North Carolina. Ferrovial knows that Interstate 77 is essentially Charlotte’s Main Street and drivers have no alternative because there isn’t land available for a new parallel highway like SH130. There’s also that thing called Lake Norman that limits the addition of new roads or lanes on the stretch between downtown Charlotte and Statesville.

So Ferrovial negotiated a  50-year deal with the N.C. DOT that limits the state’s ability to add “free” lanes without paying the toll-road company some compensation. Ferrovial knew that it had made a lousy deal in Texas; there was no way they would repeat that mistake in North Carolina.

The N.C. powerbrokers, including U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, former Gov. Beverly Perdue and Gov. Pat McCrory, who promoted the I-77 toll-lanes projects, correctly believe that fast-growing Charlotte needs new funding sources for transportation projects. But their vision isn’t matched by statesmanship nor attention to details. Rather than advocating for higher transportation-related taxes, they opted for the easier toll-lane option. Then they compounded the problem by keeping the public uninformed about what was happening. Better to tick off the folks in north Mecklenburg and Iredell counties who will have to pay the tolls every day, rather than enrage taxpayers statewide.

So Secretary Tennyson, have a great trip, enjoy some super Tex-Mex and brisket in the Live Musical Capital of the World. No doubt your findings may help Gov. McCrory slip away from his past support of the toll lanes. But we already know the answer – SH 130 isn’t I-77.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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