Friday, February 20, 2015

HOT Lanes Bonus Allocation Project Raising Eyebrows

It has been called a bribe, a sweetener, and an incentive, but its official name is the “bonus allocation”.

The word you use to describe this pot of money likely depends on whether or not you support the I77 HOT Lanes project.  Regardless, a lot of taxpayer money is in the process of being planned and approved if the HOT project overcomes financing and legal hurdles to move forward.

Earlier this month, a group called the Technical Coordinating Committee (TCC) provided a draft list of projects to the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO) for spending the “bonus allocation” from NCDOT for having the HOT lanes project instead of new general purpose lanes.

According to Bill Coxe, Huntersville’s transportation planner, the recent TCC action “was to forward the list of projects that would use either bonus allocation or direct attributable funding to CRTPO for ‘review and consideration’ and did not make a formal recommendation.  That will occur at the March 5th TCC meeting.”  Coxe also said he “would not be at all surprised to see changes at that time."

That's good to hear because the current list leaves a good bit to be desired.

Again, regardless of what you call this pot of money or whether or not you support the HOT Lanes project, since citizens are going to be stuck with toll lanes for 50 years under the current plan, one would think the money should go primarily to those who are going to be stuck paying the tolls.  Unfortunately, the current list seems to have lost track of that point.

Here is the breakdown of proposed project costs by municipality: Huntersville  $44.5m , Cornelius  $42.7m, Statesville $30m, Charlotte $23m, Mooresville $15.7m, Davidson $5.2m with a miscellaneous $5m thrown in for studies not attributable to any single town.

The total of $166.6m for the 22 projects on the list is greater than the expected available funding of something closer to $158m, so some trimming or changes are likely.

However, one of the projects on the list is definitely raising eyebrows.  That would be the $30m project to add direct access ramps to the HOT lanes from the bridge at Stumptown Rd in Huntersville.  The concern is that this project pprimarily helps tolling contractor Cintra rather than local residents.

I asked Huntersville Commissioner Rob Kidwell about his concerns on spending Bonus money for a HOT direct access ramp.

“It is my opinion that if we are getting this ‘Bonus Allocation Money’ for having the project in our area, we should be able to use it for projects that benefit all of our citizens, not just a few who ‘might’ use the HOT lanes.  The thought process of giving it back to the company to help them on the build out, is absurd and those are items they should of thought about when they bid on this project, not after.”

Commissioner Kidwell went on to say if Bonus money is spent on HOT access points “they should at least, at the very minimum, require that they build access points to both the general purpose lanes and the HOT lanes on these new bridges. By doing that, you now are serving the entire community, which is the responsible and right thing to do.”

I also checked with Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy for his take on this proposed use of bonus funds.

Gilroy said “the logic of using ‘Bonus Allocation’ dollars to help build the toll lanes project itself is utterly asinine. In fact, such an allocation underscores the cynicism and thoughtlessness with which NCDOT has planned this tolling project from the beginning.

These "Bonus" dollars are meant entirely as an incentive to local citizens to help make-up for the tens of thousands of dollars in personal toll expenses which routine users of I-77 will incur in the coming years. NCDOT's consultant Stantec projects that local families, with at least one daily commuter to Charlotte, will incur over $400 per month in new expenses within the first few years of I-77 tolling. That's a body blow to working class families. For NCDOT to then apply "Bonus" incentive funds to the very same project helps nobody other than NCDOT and toll road operator Cintra.

This is insult on top of injury for local residents."

Strong words to be sure, but there is another project on the draft list that should maybe worry taxpayers even more.  That’s the $3m “feasibility study” for even more direct access points which would require further additional cost to taxpayers for the benefit of Cintra.

Before this HOT lanes project even gets the first shovel in the ground, it’s true cost is starting to balloon above its $655m price tag.

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