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Tillis Cannot Honor Vow

By Cindy Beamon

The Daily Advance

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Funding for the Mid-Currituck Bridge once hung on a powerful lawmaker’s promise, but that vow has now evaporated, local officials say.

Now-retired state Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, often referred to a promise Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis made Owens his last year in office. Paul O’Neal, chairman of the Currituck Board of Commissioners, said he, too, witnessed that promise.

Both recalled hearing Tillis. R-Mecklenburg, promise to preserve “gap funds” needed to supplement construction costs for the proposed $660 million bridge linking Currituck’s mainland to the Outer Banks.

But last week, Tillis reportedly told a delegation of bridge supporters from Currituck and Dare counties he could no longer keep that vow nor would they want him to keep it.

With new plans to run against U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C, in 2014, Tillis could only hold off the inevitable for his final year in office, Tillis reportedly told the group. Once Tillis was gone, opponents to the toll-road project would be free to cut the funds anyway, he said.

Tillis reportedly said the bridge had a better chance of being funded under Gov. Pat McCrory’s new transportation projects funding plan.

Tillis could not be reached Friday to comment on what was said in his Raleigh office.

But on Friday, Currituck commissioners agreed that “gap funds” for the bridge are gone despite earlier assurances the money would be there.

Before leaving office in 2010, then-powerful Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, had won General Assembly approval for $28 million a year in gap funds for what was to be the state’s first public-private partnership. The gap funds would keep down the cost of tolls on the privately built and maintained seven-mile span across the Currituck Sound.

With Basnight gone and a new GOP majority in charge in 2011, however, funding for the bridge fell under closer scrutiny and opposition just as the project neared final approval.

Now Currituck commissioners say the bridge’s fate will rest with the new transportation projects funding formula. Three commissioners at the meeting Thursday had mixed reactions about how that may impact the project.

O’Neal said Tillis was very positive about the bridge’s prospects under the new system.

“I can only rely on what those that make the decisions tell me … and if what they are telling us is true, I would say the bridge will be built,” said O’Neal.

O’Neal said the latest setback is one in a series of difficulties the project has faced over decades.

“The last 30 years, it’s been pretty darn difficult, and I don’t know how it can get any more difficult,” he said.

Commissioner Paul Martin said Tillis appeared positive about the bridge’s chances for funding under the new transportation projects funding plan. Supporters will know more once the N.C. Department of Transportation scores projects using the new formula, he said.

“It’s still in the running. (The General Assembly) budget pulled the gap funding, but with the new way they are going to fund roads and everything, we can compete,” said Martin.

Commissioner Butch Petrey was less optimistic about the turn of events.

“The gap funding is no longer and we are going to have to be pitted against other road projects, and we don’t have that much control over our destiny,” said Petrey.

N.C. Highway 12 in Cape Hatteras will also be in the competition for funding, he said.

“It’s a bigger need than our bridge, obviously,” said Petrey.

He said Basnight did the bridge no favor by waiting until his last year in office to push for funding. Now the bridge faces opposition from powerful members of the state Senate, including Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick.

With so much working against the Mid-Currituck Bridge, “I don’t see it happening anytime soon,” said Petrey.

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