RALEIGH, N.C. — The state Court of Appeals has rejected a legal challenge to a project adding toll lanes along a Charlotte-area interstate, ruling Tuesday that the state acted lawfully when it made the deal with a private toll operator.
The challenge was filed by a group that advocated for widening Interstate 77 without adding tolls, reflecting criticism that made the project an issue in last year's close governor's race. The group had argued that the state made an unconstitutional deal with a private company to build and operate the toll lanes.
But a three-judge appeals court panel ruled unanimously that the deal was struck lawfully, siding with a lower court that rebuffed the challenge last year.
Construction has begun on the toll lanes that will run about 26 miles from Charlotte north to Mooresville. The stretch will still feature non-tolled lanes, and the tolls will be charged electronically or mailed to drivers, according to the state Transportation Department .
Around the time the deal was made in 2014, state officials said the toll lanes would help reduce travel time and congestion along the busy stretch of highway north of the state's largest city. The contract allows I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Cintra , to operate the lanes and collect tolls.
The group that opposed the deal, WidenI77, contended the state unlawfully gave the company authority to set toll rates, among other arguments.
But the appeals judges wrote that the state has put in adequate safeguards, including the requirement of public hearings on toll rates and reports to state officials.
A lawyer for WidenI77 didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Tuesday's ruling.
Public criticism of the toll lane project became an issue in the closely contested governor's race last year in which Republican incumbent Pat McCrory narrowly lost. Democratic challenger Roy Cooper, who's now governor, criticized the toll lane contract during the campaign.
Under the Cooper administration, transportation officials recently announced the hiring of an outside consultant to review the deal. However, work is already well underway and the state says it expects the toll lanes to open in late 2018.