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Forget a delay, some in Mecklenburg want I-77 toll road plan canceled

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett of Huntersville
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett of Huntersville courtesy of Jim Puckett

As the state forges ahead with a plan to widen Interstate 77 with controversial toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville, a growing number of elected officials who’d asked for the project to be delayed want it canceled now – even if it means paying millions in penalties.

At Tuesday’s Mecklenburg County commissioners meeting, the board will vote on a resolution introduced by Republican commissioner Jim Puckett that asks Gov. Pat McCrory and state transportation officials to terminate the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, the developer chosen to build and manage the toll lanes.

The resolution also asks that general-purpose lanes be built “as soon as reasonably possible” to relieve future congestion in that stretch.

Puckett has many reasons for opposing the toll lanes that are to be built through his district by 2018. Toll lanes, he said, won’t solve congestion and will harm local businesses.

Then there’s this one: He lives near the interstate’s Exit 23, and if he took the toll lanes home, he couldn’t get off at that exit.

“There’s no exit off the toll lane at 23 ... or at 25 ... or 28,” Puckett said. “Tractor trailers can’t use the toll lane, so either I’m going to have to sit in backed-up traffic waiting to get on Exit 23, or I’m going to take the toll lane and have to get off a few miles from my exit and take a two-lane road home.

“The design doesn’t serve the people who live here every day. This project is simply the wrong project for northern Mecklenburg and southern Iredell.”

In May, commissioners joined calls from Cornelius, Huntersville, Mooresville and Davidson to delay the project by 90 days after opponents found a surprise 50-year, non-compete clause included in the final contract. After the toll lanes were completed, the DOT would have to pay the developer compensation for lost tolls if it builds new free lanes on the highway.

That caught commissioners and the towns off-guard, and opposition has been building ever since.

Puckett wants McCrory to include the widening project in his $2.8 billion bond proposal for new roads and repairs to state facilities.

Last week, the governor issued a statement that it’s too late to cancel the project and that he wouldn’t include new free lanes in his bond plan.

McCrory said that canceling the project could cost the state $50 million to $100 million. He and transportation department officials have said the Charlotte region could lose up to $100 million because the money would go to other projects. They have said repeatedly that they’re only giving Mecklenburg and Iredell what local officials have spent years advocating for.

Puckett said the lost money “is a small price to pay to avoid a 50-year economic disaster. …If the governor wants to demonstrate he is as complicit and narrow-minded as his predecessors that’s his choice.

“I assumed he would be different.”

State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican from Cornelius, said Saturday that it’s never too late to cancel “a bad contract.”

Tarte said the region supported the plan when economic conditions were “180 degrees different from what they are today. The reason local communities agreed to the managed lanes was purely a business decision – either you do this or have nothing at all.”

He said the state’s economy and debt capacity have improved dramatically the past five years and that the state “has several options to pay for this (widening). We could even pay as we go and not have to borrow.”

The state had plans to build toll lanes on other interstates to generate revenues to pay for “infrastructure.” But it backed off, Tarte said. “For Mecklenburg County to be the only place we do significant tolling is completely unfair,” he said.

Tarte said he’s talking to other senators, House members and DOT officials to find an approach that makes the most financial sense to solve congestion. “When we had no choices, doing nothing was not an option,” he said. “We have a lot of options today, so this is a bad deal now.

“Tolling – oversimplified – is stupid.”

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