Charlotte City Council voted 7-4 Monday to support toll lanes under construction on Interstate 77, a decision that will likely allow the controversial project to continue.
As opposition mounted to the I-77 toll lanes last year, Gov. Pat McCrory asked for local transportation leaders to vote again on toll lanes, including those planned for I-77 and I-485. Because Charlotte holds nearly half the votes on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, Monday’s vote was crucial for the fate of the new lanes.
CRTPO is scheduled to vote Jan. 20 on the toll lanes. With Charlotte’s support, toll lanes will likely move forward.
Leading up to the vote, the N.C. Department of Transportation said that a no vote would cause the other toll lane projects to stop.
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In addition, DOT said the penalty for canceling the project could cost $100 million. Recently, DOT cited a consultant’s report commissioned by the state auditor that said the penalty could be $300 million.
Council members who voted in favor of the project cited what some called “threats” in their voting for the lanes.
Four council members – Democrats Claire Fallon, Al Austin and LaWana Mayfield and Republican Kenny Smith – voted against directing its CRTPO member, Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles, to support the toll lanes.
Voting in favor of toll lanes were Republican Ed Driggs and Democrats John Autry, Patsy Kinsey, Julie Eiselt, Vi Lyles, James Mitchell and Greg Phipps.
In directing Lyles to support toll lanes, council members said they weren’t specifically endorsing toll lanes on I-77. But their vote allows the project to move forward.
Lyles said north Mecklenburg residents needed to work to create “alternative routes” to and from Charlotte, such as public transit.
Council members said they “acknowledged” there were problems with DOT’s contract with Cintra, the private developer.
But Mayfield said that wasn’t good enough.
“We have heard a number of threats against Charlotte,” Mayfield said. “We are talking about a level of fear that doesn’t work to me.”
She said the contract was “completely irresponsible by any and all who signed off on it.”
Earlier in the evening, council members discussed the toll lanes with city and DOT leaders.
Some council members balked at how city staff members and McCrory presented the issue to them. Council members were asked to vote on supporting all toll lane projects for the region. Some council members asked what would happen if they voted in favor of toll lanes, but not the I-77 project.
“I don’t appreciate being in the position of being asked to make that choice,” said Driggs.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts asked Nick Tennyson, the state transportation secretary, whether the state would be obliged to cancel the I-77 contract if CRTPO voted against it.
The contract has already been executed, and Tennyson said the state didn’t need any new authority to keep it moving forward.
Later, after the vote, Roberts said she was “disappointed” by the choice presented to council members.
Danny Pleasant heads the Charlotte Department of Transportation, which has backed toll lanes for nearly a decade. He said the city wrote the agenda as an up-or-down vote on all toll lanes because that’s what McCrory requested.
He said the state wanted to know if the city would be a reliable partner when other toll lane projects move forward.
“When the next project is under construction, are we going to be reliable?” he said.
More than 40 people spoke on the toll lanes – most in opposition.
“We’re not asking you for help, we are begging you,” said John Hettwer of Cornelius.
State Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican, urged council members to recommend voting against the I-77 contract, while still supporting toll lanes.
“You can bifurcate the vote,” he said. “We aren’t asking you to vote on managed lanes. We are asking you to recommend canceling the contract.”
County commissioner Vilma Leake, a Democrat, asked the “Beatties Ford Road corridor” to stand in opposition to the toll lanes. Beatties Ford Road is inside the city limits and is a mostly minority area.
Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan spoke in favor of the toll lanes. He compared the issue to the 2007 vote on whether to keep or repeal the transit sales tax.
Cost and penalties
The I-77 toll lanes will cost $647 million.
Much of that money will come from the private developer, I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Cintra. The DOT will contribute $88 million. The state could also pay another $75 million if toll revenues don’t match projections. The state is also planning to spend $145 million of so-called “bonus” dollars to improve roads and interchanges in and around I-77.
If the DOT cancels the contract for convenience, it’s unclear how much taxpayers would have to pay.
The DOT initially said the penalty could be $100 million. A consultant’s report recently said the penalty could be has high as $300 million.
Critics have said the $300 million is vastly inflated, and they question why the state would enter into a contract in which it would pay I-77 Mobility Partners for nearly half of the project’s total value. Construction on the project started in November.