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Rep. Tillis’ stubborn support for tolls on I-77 is baffling

By Dave Gilroy
Special to the Observer

I’ll start by stipulating that I am perhaps Thom Tillis’ biggest fan. I took his seat on the Cornelius board of commissioners in 2005, when Thom went on to make history in North Carolina. Thom has had astonishing impact in leading the General Assembly to a Republican majority for the first time in over 100 years. Now, Thom is leading the legislature to do truly great things – unemployment insurance reform; teacher tenure limitations; spending cuts; major tax reform; and, importantly, a huge overhaul of transportation funding in the state.

So, like many other conservatives, I’ve been confused by Thom’s stubborn recent support for toll lanes on I-77. Thom was taped last year stating unequivocally that he did not support toll lanes on I-95 because tolling I-95, just like tolling I-77, would “discredit” the case elsewhere in North Carolina where tolling really can make sense. Thom changed his mind once; hopefully he can rethink this critical local issue once more.

Here’s the $550 million question: Why have elected officials decided not to consider whether dramatic change in transportation funding at the state level as well as an entirely new project ranking system at a regional level would mean that I-77 can now be widened with general purpose lanes?

It’s baffling, candidly. Many point to N.C. DOT’s “consulting” firm, Parsons Brinckerhoff, contracted to assess the opportunity for toll lanes on I-77. Parsons Brinckerhoff’s conflict of interest is underscored by its heavy involvement in planning, designing, and implementing tolls plus toll technology testing, toll collections and back office operations. The company stands to gain enormously from tolls on I-77, is profoundly influential as a quasi-insider aligned with N.C. DOT, and is a master at lining up political support at all levels.

In Thom’s case, another theory relates to his U.S. Senate race – arguably, a public-private partnership to widen a highway that many said couldn’t otherwise be widened makes a good campaign talking point.

My communications with Thom suggest a different answer. Thom focuses his narrative supporting tolling I-77 on state-level challenges. He argues that demand for new roads exceeds the supply of funds given shrinking gas tax revenues, and tolling can play a role in future transportation funding.

If that is the argument, then Cornelius residents, whom I represent, have a right to call foul. The undeniable truth is that $16 billion will be spent in North Carolina on roads over the next decade, and new general purpose lanes for I-77 should fairly qualify for the less than 1 percent of this funding.

Thom’s influence is extremely powerful. His words fortified MUMPO’s recent vote for tolling I-77, so we are now moving on to the contracting phase.

Still, I remain a big supporter of Thom Tillis and will work to help him win the U.S. Senate seat next year. I am also counting on him and all elected officials to support the need for an independent review of contract terms for this immense and high risk project; we must ensure that mistakes made elsewhere are not repeated here, with the taxpayer on the hook for another bailout or worse.

Dave Gilroy is a Cornelius town commissioner.
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