“Tolls are a done deal.” It’s a phrase being tossed around frequently this election season. We’re told the contract will be awarded in January of 2014, so it’s only a matter of time.
But is that really the case?
I’ve been hearing “done deal” talk since April 2010, when the Lake Norman Transportation Commission (LNTC) voted unanimously in support of tolling. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Here’s why:
First, the current plan defies fiscal history. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, the I-77 toll lanes would have to collect more revenue than every toll lane in the country except one. Toll revenues would have to repay one of the largest capital costs while serving one of the smallest metropolitan areas.
The fiscal disconnect is put in sharp perspective when comparing the current plan to the “done deal” of April 2010. Back then a modest, publicly-operated project hoped to collect $22M in tolls over a period of twenty years. The current project will require that kind of revenue every year.
Of course, fiscal gravity has never been a concern of HOT lane proponents. They point out that the private companies will never underwrite the project if they feel there is little chance of making a return on their investment. Unfortunately, under the current proposed contract, the taxpayer may be the one ensuring that return. As we’ve written about elsewhere, the taxpayer stands to bail out a significant portion of the project if (when?) it fails financially.
Second, the official HOT lane justification is driving on thin ice. Projects of this scope must undergo some form of an impact assessment. For this project, NCDOT conducted an environmental assessment (vs a full-blown review). In August the Southern Environmental Law Center issued a blistering memo about the inadequacy of the NCDOT’s environmental assessment. (The SELC are the same folks who sued to stop the Monroe Bypass.) Most notably, the SELC took issue with the study time frame ending the same year the project is supposed to open.
Before a project may go out for bid it must be granted a Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI) or have a plan developed to remedy the impacts noted. The HOT lane plan was supposed to have FONSI status last month. No word from the NCDOT on when this may happen. Further, the NCDOT has failed to post responses to the public comments from their meeting back in July. No word on when those will be posted, either. Until the FONSI happens, the project cannot legally proceed.
But there’s another wrench: North Carolina has a 150-day statute of limitations on the FONSI, after which the state cannot be sued. Thus, it would be prudent for the NCDOT to wait 5 months after they issue the FONSI (assuming they do). This puts us past January, which is important for a reason we’ll discuss in a moment.
Again, prudence may be ignored. When it comes to tolls, the NCDOT has a history of playing fast and loose with taxpayer dollars. They issued hundreds of millions in bonds immediately after the FONSI for the Monroe Bypass. The SELC filed suit and won, and now the NC taxpayer is paying millions in interest every year for bonds that have built nothing. Similarly the Triangle Expressway, North Carolina’s only toll road, has revenues so far below plan that the General Assembly has pledged $25M per year for the next 30 years to cover potential shortfalls.
Third, even if the NCDOT decides to summarily issue the FONSI they may have trouble with the Feds. The SELC memo takes issue with the NCDOT’s disregard for a federal statute called the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). (Sorry for all the acronyms.) According to our source, the Feds may very well step in and insist the environmental assessment be re-done to NEPA standards, including a time frame of 20-25 years in the future. The Feds apparently have a history of doing this, at one time delaying a project for a couple years until the state complied.
A reworked EA would add another 6-8 month delay. That plus the 5 month statute of limitations pushes the project approval to late 2014 at best.
Why is this important?
Because between now and then there are local elections. If we support candidates who oppose tolls, a lot that can happen within a year. That’s the subject of another blog post, but for a good idea of the kind of candidates we need, you might want to check out TollFreeNC.org.
As one NCDOT official put it, “it’s not a done deal until the contract is signed.”
Vote this November. It’s important.
— Kurt Naas