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NC Politics As Usual-Budget Restores Bridge Funding

Budget restores bridge funding
By Cindy Beamon
Staff Writer Daily Advance
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

To keep the cost of tolls down for travelers, state lawmakers not only restored funding for the proposed mid-county bridge in Currituck, they multiplied the amount of state dollars going into the project.

During final negotiations on the $19 billion state budget lawmakers approved Wednesday, the General Assembly restored $15 million for the bridge project that had previously been cut in a House version of the budget. In addition, lawmakers included additional “gap funding” needed to keep the cost of bridge tolls down.

Originally lawmakershad earmarked $15 million a year in gap funding for the project. Gap funds will be used to subsidize construction costs so that tolls are not too high. The compromise budget agreed to by the House and Senate on Wednesday increases gap funding to $28 million a year after the first three years.

The first installment of the $15 million in gap funds was scheduled to begin next year, but the House initially voted to let the N.C. Department of Transportation use the funds for other road projects after plans for financing the bridge fell behind schedule.

A spokesman for Senate leader Marc Basnight said the delay of funding for the $800 million project did not send the right signal to private investors in the state’s first private-public partnership.

“For the money to be funded and then removed, he (Basnight) felt it gave the wrong message,” said Schorr Johnson, communications director for Basnight, D-Dare. “Anything that would take away a funding source that had become law, he viewed as a threat to the project.”

State House Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, said he was pleased with the funding plan even though he had originally voted for the House budget, believing it would not negatively affect the bridge project.

“We are in better shape than we were at the start of the year,” said Owens, in reference the additional gap funding. “The more money we get, the less the tolls will be in the years to come.”

Currituck County Commissioner Owen Etheridge said the state’s funding for the mid-county bridge was encouraging.

“I am just glad the state is still committed to fund this vital transportation link to Currituck. I think this shows commitment to it,” Etheridge said.

Other commissioners were not available for comment on Wednesday.

In 2008, the General Assembly appropriated gap funds to offset construction debt not covered by toll revenue. Tolls would be too high if the state relied exclusively on toll revenue to pay the construction debt, state officials say.

To make the project feasible, the state plans to pay yearly gap fund installments for up to 50 years, or until debt for the bridge is paid. Financing for the project would come from a combination of bonds, federal loans, and private financing.

The state plans to contract with ACS Dragodos, a Spanish bridge building company to construct and help finance the project. Turnpike Authority officials have said financing negotiations could begin in about six months.

In addition to financing, the project still awaits approval of its Final Environmental Impact Statement, scheduled for September. If approved, construction could begin in 2011 and be completed in 2014, the Turnpike Authority projects.

Three public hearings on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement in May drew both support and criticism from residents, but mostly criticism from residents in Aydlett and Corolla, the landing points for the bridge.

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