State Treasurer Janet Cowell was in the loop on a controversial financing plan to finish building Charlotte’s Interstate 485 -- but she did not object until a few hours after it was announced by Gov. Bev Perdue, state transportation officials said today.
Perdue told Charlotte leaders on Nov. 9 that North Carolina would put up $290 million for a pair of I-485 projects expected to cost $340 million. The project contractors will be asked to finance the remaining $50 million, she said, to be repaid by the state over the next 10 years.
Jim Trogdon, chief operating officer for the state Department of Transportation, said he first outlined the I-485 plan in a meeting with Cowell Oct. 12. She expressed enthusiasm and asked DOT officials to work with members of her staff.
“She said they were excited about the opportunity to work with us on the project,” Trogdon said today.
Cowell’s staff later asked about DOT’s legal authority to finance part of the project cost, and DOT cited a statute that Trogdon had helped draft when he was a legislative staff member in 2006. The law, which has been revised since then, empowers DOT to contract with private firms to finance road and other projects.
Lawyers for the state Attorney General’s Office affirmed that DOT had the legal authority to make the deal and shared their conclusion with the treasurer’s office, Trogdon said.
“The first time we heard they had a difference of opinion on the legal authority was the afternoon after we announced it, on Nov. 9,” Trogdon said. “They had obtained an outside opinion that was different.”
Cowell went public with her qualms late Tuesday, issuing a brief statement expressing uncertainty about DOT’s financing scheme.
Her office has not released documents including legal opinions provided by private attorneys at Cowell’s request.
"We continue to advise the governor's office and the Department of Transportation on the various options that are available," said Melissa Waller, Cowell’s spokeswoman.
Perdue’s office reaffirmed the governor’s intent to proceed with the I-485 plan.
"The governor's office remains confident that this is an innovative, creative way to meet the Charlotte area's transportation needs," said Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Perdue. "We have been assured by DOT officials and by the state's lawyers that this plan is legal and will work in North Carolina. We have no reason to believe otherwise.
"There were a lot of 't's crossed and 'i's dotted prior to the governor announcing this plan," Pearson said.