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I-77 toll lanes approved despite angry crowd’s objections

An angry crowd of Interstate 77 toll-lane opponents booed and shouted down members of the agency that sets Charlotte area road priorities Wednesday night.

But in the end, the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization voted unanimously to amend the agency’s current and long-range transportation plans to include the $550 million project.

The vote means the N.C Department of Transportation will now move forward with the planned toll lanes on the heavily traveled stretch from Charlotte to Mooresville.

The only way the project could be stopped is if the General Assembly steps in and votes to reverse its 2012 approval of the project.

Cornelius commissioner Chuck Travis, who serves on the road planning panel, said the I-77 toll-lane project will serve as a model for similar public-private partnerships to finance highway expansions elsewhere across the state given limited public dollars.

But opponents have long argued that the state should add general purpose lanes, which they contend would cost far less. Widen I-77 – a citizens group opposed to the tolls – contends that Lake Norman area commuters would bear the brunt of the cost because they’d be the biggest users of the toll lanes.

Members of the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization – or MUMPO – are elected officials from Charlotte and surrounding cities and towns and Mecklenburg and Union counties.

A state Department of Transportation official also gets a vote. Because of its size, Charlotte’s vote counts for 16 of the 38 votes on the panel.

‘That is shameful’

Before Wednesday night’s vote, the crowd of about 40 erupted in shouts when Huntersville commissioner Sarah McAulay, the MUMPO chairwoman, said toll-lane opponents would have only 10 minutes total to state their case.

“That is shameful!” Mark Neroni of Cornelius shouted to members of the panel. “This is a democracy. That is unfair.”

When toll-lane opponent Kurt Naas of Cornelius told the panel that everyone in the crowd deserved a chance to speak, McAulay responded: “Your time is up.”

“Let us speak! Let us speak! Let us speak!” the crowd chanted over and over.

The angry reaction prompted David Howard, the Charlotte City Council’s representative on the road planning agency, to call for security. “This is not respectful to the process at all,” Howard told the crowd.

Opponents then walked out of the meeting room at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, leaving only the panel and three audience members.

Can’t afford tolls

Before the meeting, toll-lane opponents gathered in the Government Center lobby and said they were expecting the local road planning panel to approve the toll-lane project.

“I’m an upper middle class kind of person who can’t afford to pay those tolls, so who can?” said IT consultant Richard John, 53, of Cornelius.

Top state transportation officials have said North Carolina lacks the money to expand I-77 with general purpose lanes unless drivers are willing to wait at least another 25 years.

Lawmaker seeks reversal

State Rep. Robert Brawley, R-Iredell, who opposes the toll-lane project, said the state should shift the $170 million it plans to put toward the toll lanes and build general purpose lanes.

He said he is gathering support among legislators to reverse the General Assembly’s 2012 vote in favor of tolls.

The project calls for adding two toll lanes on northbound and southbound I-77 between Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius.

One toll lane would continue in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36 (N.C. 150) in Mooresville.

State officials have said toll rates would vary depending on congestion.

The state intends to hire a contractor in August to finance, design, build and operate the lanes. Construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2014, with some segments opening in 2016.

Marusak: 704-987-3670; Twitter: @ jmarusak
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