Advocates for plan to stop I-77 toll project say progress being made

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — If the state of North Carolina cancels or modifies the Interstate-77 toll lane project, there's now a plan in place breaking down how the penalties or costs would be paid.

[Link: North Carolina General Assembly amendment]

In a reading Tuesday, state lawmakers unanimously passed an amendment in the House that will set aside up to $300 million from Highway Fund and Highway Trust Fund surpluses.

Under the amendment, those dollars would eventually be paid back by toll revenues from the I-77 project, assuming the state takes it over.

North Carolina House leaders will take a final vote Wednesday on whether to set that money aside for potential changes to the project.

[RELATED: I-77 toll-lane committee asks for compromise on project]

Channel 9 was told that the state could make a decision on how to proceed with the project as soon as July.

John Hettwer, the president of Payroll Plus, who is active in the fight against I-77 tolls, said the toll lane project is closer to being canceled or changed today than it was yesterday.

“That's the entire state saying this is a bad deal,” said Hettwer, who is also on the I-77 advisory board. “It is a window to fix a major problem for North Carolina.”

A couple of weeks ago, the majority of members suggested the state should take over the project and make one of the two toll lanes free.

Under the amendment, any money borrowed from the highway funds would eventually be paid back by toll revenues from I-77, assuming the state can do that.

Rep. John Ray Bradford, of Cornelius in Mecklenburg County, introduced a plan that would allocate money to pay for any costs, damages or monetary penalties if the state cancels or modifies the I-77 toll project.

Bradford is optimistic because the plant guarantees lawmakers' projects in their districts won't be affected by I-77.

Bradford said he is confident the Senate will take up the issue, and it will pass easily.

“I think this is a much different thing than we have seen in the past,” he said. “I would like to think this would be supported in unanimity, quite frankly.”

Bradford's amendment was not the only I-77 amendment to pass Tuesday.

An amendment sponsored by Rep. Chaz Beasley, of Charlotte, was also tacked onto the transportation bill. The amendment, which passed 103-9, allows the Department of Transportation to study potential funding sources to cancel or modify the I-77 contract.

"The passage of two anti-toll amendments in the House today is an encouraging sign for the people in our community," Beasley said. "Our community wants solutions to the I77 toll lane debacle and today we created the space for those solutions to take hold."

Before the Senate can take up the measure, it has to pass a third reading in the House.

I-77 is supposed to have toll lanes stretching for 26 miles from Charlotte to Mooresville by the end of the year.

Sen. Phil Berger, Gov. Roy Cooper and I-77 Mobility Partners, the company building the toll lane project, did not respond to Channel 9's request for comment.