Lake Norman business leaders have joined the rallying cry urging state transportation officials to sever ties with developers of a divisive $650 million plan to add toll lanes to the northern half of Mecklenburg County.
The Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce’s 21-member board on Tuesday called for the N.C. Department of Transportation to cancel a contract with I-77 Mobility Partners and find an alternative way to widen the interstate.
Their announcement comes a week after Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, said he planned to file a bill that would defund the Lake Norman-area project. Tarte has said an endorsement from the business community would likely strengthen his bill in the Senate.
Widespread opposition to the project has emboldened Charlotte-area business and political leaders, who plan to make a bus trip to Raleigh next Tuesday to meet with lawmakers. That’s the same day Tarte tentatively said he’ll introduce his bill.
“Every single person in Raleigh, with the exception of Sen. Tarte, hears the DOT side of this,” said Republican Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett, a vocal critic of the project. “They’re not hearing from the business community that’s going to be impacted by this for five decades. We want to have an opportunity to explain.”
The 50-year contract, which requires the state to pay developers if it builds any new free lanes on the interstate, has inflamed passions from citizens, activists and elected officials who oppose tolls. Taxpayers are expected to foot the bill for an initial $95 million for the project. The N.C. DOT has said the tolls, on 26 miles of Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Mooresville, would ease congestion.
Gov. Pat McCrory has said he won’t include free lanes in a November bond referendum for roads and other projects. The N.C. DOT has said canceling the project will cost the state up to $100 million, and risks about $145 million in funds that could be used for other projects in the Charlotte region.
In a majority vote, the Lake Norman chamber adopted a resolution Monday.
It mirrors a vote last week by Mecklenburg County commissioners who approved a resolution asking McCrory to sever ties with the project’s developer and find alternative ways to fund widening I-77. Town officials in Cornelius and Davidson have passed similar resolutions.
Lake Norman chamber President Bill Russell said the group offered elected officials and transportation planners a funding alternative as far back as 2010: A plan that would resemble York County’s Pennies for Progress, a 1-percent sales tax that pays for building new roads.
“It seemed like everybody was very responsive,” said Russell, a Rock Hill native. “I was just very disappointed ... that North Carolina would not consider that. It is something that has worked in York County ... and would have worked for Lake Norman.”
Russell said the chamber polled its 1,000 members about the express lanes. Of the 20 percent who participated, 94 percent said they opposed toll lanes. According to the chamber’s resolution, business leaders feel tolls on I-77 will impair the area’s economic and small-business growth.
“Having made clear numerous times that NCDOT does not hold the unilateral decision to cancel the project...we were disappointed to see the Lake Norman Chamber call on NCDOT to do exactly that, highlighting the continued spread of misunderstanding and misinformation,” N.C. DOT Chief Deputy Secretary Nick Tennyson said in an email. “By state law and under contract, the I-77 Express Lanes project continues.”
Before the chamber voted, Tennyson told leaders the N.C. DOT is just delivering the project requested by local authorities years ago and canceling it will not automatically result in construction of general-purpose lanes. Proposals for a new project, he said, would undergo a scoring process that competes against other projects every two years.
Russell argues that leaders, at the time, were given an option: Widen the interstate with tolls or see no widening at all.
“Our view at the time, we didn’t think we could just not widen the road. We had to do it,” he said. “It was also a different economic climate. We’re still being held to the old economic climate.”
Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.