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NC Republicans ignore Tillis, say no to tolls

Opponents of planned Interstate 77 toll lanes are celebrating after the N.C. Republican Party added language opposing state highway tolls to its 2013-14 party platform.

The party’s executive committee voted overwhelmingly against tolls Sunday on the final day of the state Republican convention at the Charlotte Convention Center. The vote represented a defeat for Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, R-Cornelius, who spoke in favor of tolls, according to several party delegates.

Tillis blocked a separate vote by the executive committee later Sunday on an anti-toll-lanes resolution. He left the meeting room with several other committee members, so the committee lacked a quorum to conduct the vote, delegates told the Observer.

But the lack of a vote didn’t affect the anti-toll-lane amendment the committee adopted earlier, executive committee member Adam Love of Charlotte said. The resolution was intended merely to add emphasis to the committee’s earlier vote in favor of the anti-toll-lane amendment to the party’s platform, he said.

Tillis and his spokesman, Jordan Shaw, couldn’t be reached on Monday.

Love introduced the resolution on behalf of Vallee Bubak of Davidson and Sharon Hudson of Huntersville, who were convention delegates but not members of the executive committee. Bubak volunteers with the statewide citizens group Toll Free NC. The group grew out of Widen I 77, the Lake Norman-area citizens group that opposes tolling I-77.

“The party is very divided on this,” Love said of toll lanes. “There’s a lot of grass-roots opposition to it.”

“My primary opposition is I don’t believe double taxation is a Republican value, (or) a conservative value,” Love said, adding that residents already pay a gasoline tax for roads.

“And no one’s talking about repealing the fuel tax,” he said.

Bubak said Toll Free NC believes tax money should be spent more efficiently and I-77 should rank higher on the list of road expansions.

“North Carolina does not need to buy into the toll lane agenda that is being pushed by private tolling consultants and developers seeking their own gain at the public’s expense,” she said. The state Department of Transportation intends to hire a contractor in August to finance, design, build and operate I-77 toll lanes from Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte to Exit 36 in Mooresville. Construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2014, with some segments opening in 2016. The contract would be good for 50 years so the contractor could recoup the investment.

The project calls for adding two toll lanes on northbound and southbound I-77 between Brookshire Freeway and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One toll lane would continue in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36 (N.C. 150).

State officials have said toll rates would vary depending on congestion and that no toll rate has been established.

On May 22, 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 agency prioritizes Charlotte-area road needs for the state.

The vote meant the state will move forward with the project. The only way the project could be stopped is if the General Assembly steps in and votes to reverse its 2012 approval.

Now that the state GOP has opposed tolls, Bubak said, she hopes the Republican-led state Senate will reject House Bill 267, which authorizes HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes on I-77 and other North Carolina highways.

“Costly and lengthy 50-plus-year contracts with private toll companies defy common sense, good government and sound fiscal policy,” she said.

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