Mecklenburg commissioners weigh change that could force ‘no’ vote on toll lanes

Traffic rolls south on I-77 in Mooresville
Traffic rolls south on I-77 in Mooresville John Simmons: jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

In a last-ditch effort to stop toll lanes on Interstate 77, Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett wants the board to force its delegate on a transportation group to oppose the project later this month.

Puckett, a Republican, said he wants Vice Chair Dumont Clarke’s vote on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization to reflect the opinions of all the commissioners, not just his own.

Clarke, a Democrat who has supported the toll lanes in the past, said he will vote any way the board instructs him to, although he stressed it’s the first time commissioners have taken such an interest in the planning group’s decisions.

The CRTPO will vote Aug. 19 on the State Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), a bundle of road projects the N.C. Department of Transportation plans to pilot in the next decade. It includes the divisive $655 million plan to widen I-77 with toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville.

The N.C. Board of Transportation adopted the plan in June. If the CRTPO follows suit, the Federal Highway Administration will officially adopt it.

The amount of sway commissioners hold during the vote is minimal when compared with the city of Charlotte’s representative, City Councilwoman Vi Lyles. Of the 68 votes on the CRTPO, Lyles has 31. Clarke has two.

Bob Cook, CRTPO secretary, said an air quality conformity process prevents delegates from voting on just parts of the TIP – meaning Clarke is unable to just vote against the toll lanes. If commissioners direct him to vote “no” Aug. 19, he would be voting against the entire TIP, which includes a number of non-toll projects in the Charlotte area.

Puckett will ask commissioners at their Tuesday meeting to consider a policy to allow the board to direct their delegate’s vote on the transportation board.

Republican commissioner Bill James said he won’t support a vote against the entire TIP because it means depriving his district of $200 million in road improvements.

Moreover, he said the issue raises another question: Can elected officials order one of their own to vote a specific way “even if they fundamentally disagree with it”?

It’s a question that’s never come up for the board, said James, who in emails to colleagues questioned the legality of directing Clarke’s vote.

“My answer is nobody’s going to tell me what to do,” he said. “If I was on (the CRTPO), I’d vote my conscience, no matter what the board said.”

County Attorney Marvin Bethune declined to comment Monday on commissioners requiring their delegate on the transportation board to vote a certain way.

For years, the board’s CRTPO delegate used his or her own judgment to vote on transportation projects, usually without consulting the full board. That method has gone unchallenged because past plans were “relatively non-controversial,” Puckett said.

Now that toll lanes are in the mix, attitudes have changed, and a rift has formed.

“You have the majority of the board feeling one way and our representative feeling another,” Puckett said.

In a string of emails over the weekend, Puckett, the board’s CRTPO alternate if Clarke is unavailable to vote, said the policy as it stands today lacks cohesion. For example, if he were to cast the vote as an alternate, he would vote “no,” which contrasts with Clarke’s feelings about the project, he said.

“If....I had to vote, I would honestly probably rather have direction from my board than it just be my call,” he said.

Clarke, who agreed Monday to vote the way the board wants him to, said a change to the policy should be addressed in a public policy session or board committee meeting. That committee would then submit a proposal to the full board for consideration.

He also reminded commissioners in an email that the toll project is nothing new – the CRTPO voted on it back in 2011 and amended it in 2013. Gov. Pat McCrory has said it’s too late to stop the express lanes or terminate the state’s contract with the project’s developer. Doing so, he said, would cost taxpayers up to $100 million.

Still, Puckett is unmoved in his criticism of the tolls and feels the board did not receive enough information about the project from its CRTPO representative.

Clarke counters that in the 15 years he’s been a commissioner, he has never heard a board member request information from CRTPO meetings. He said he sent information about the August TIP vote to commissioners two months ago and invited them to contact him with concerns. Only James did, he said.

“I’m perfectly willing to talk to anybody or give them any information they want,” Clarke said. “No one has ever told me that was one of my duties.”

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov