I-77 toll-road opponents pledge to continue fighting project in legislature

Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius updates members of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce about efforts to stop the I-77 toll project.
Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius updates members of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce about efforts to stop the I-77 toll project. Sam Hardiman

Opponents of the $655 million Interstate 77 toll lane project say it’s not too late and the odds aren’t too long to stop what they see as a economic development disaster waiting to happen.

“This will be canceled. Bet your money on it,” Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett said, adding that the $100 million cancellation fee is a fraction of what it could cost the state to buy out the toll lane project later.

The project, expected to be completed in 2018, would turn an existing carpool lane into an express toll lane and add another alongside it. The two express lanes would accompany two general purpose lanes stretching 26 miles north and south from Exit 11 in Mecklenburg County to Exit 36 in Iredell County.

On its website, the N.C. Department of Transportation says it offers riders a choice between a shorter travel time by paying a toll or not paying and using the general purpose lanes, adding the problem will only get worse if nothing is done about it.

Gov. Pat McCrory said Monday there isn’t enough money to widen I-77 without the toll project.

But Puckett and Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, gave members of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce and the public an update Friday on their efforts to thwart the toll plan and laid out the next steps for the legal and lobbying efforts against it. Tarte has sponsored a bill that would defund the project. He acknowledged Friday that his bill’s passage is a long shot.

Puckett said his primary task in the coming weeks is to convince one of the co-chairs of the Senate Transportation Committee to take up Tarte’s bill and then secure seven votes from the 13 members. For that, Puckett said, he needs a critical mass of businesses and lawmakers in the area to voice their opposition.

The chamber’s board called for the N.C. Department of Transportation to cancel the project in June, saying it would restrict economic development.

Puckett said the chamber’s formal opposition, and that of local NASCAR legends Ray Evernham and H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, has helped him and others find the “bigger friends” – with more influence – locally, and in Raleigh. He and local business leaders recently traveledto Raleigh to engage lawmakers about the project.

He said he’s talked to people with a direct line into the governor’s mansion and that he plans to meet next week with a key Charlotte leader who could help change the minds of members of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization.

The CRTPO is crucial, Tarte said, because they could stop the projectby voting against the 2016-2025 Transportation Improvement Program, which is now open for public comment.

The Chamber planned to send an email later Friday to tell members and others to comment for or against the project.

On the legal front, Widen I-77 member Kurt Naas asked event attendees to submit affidavits in support of the organization’s civil lawsuit aimed at stopping construction of the tolls. The group held a fundraiser Thursday night and raised between $2,000 and $3,000 for legal costs. Naas said it could take more than $70,000 for the group to explore every legal avenue available to it.