Key vote pending on toll lane construction plan

The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization will vote Aug. 19 on a transportation plan that includes toll lanes for I-77.
The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization will vote Aug. 19 on a transportation plan that includes toll lanes for I-77. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Opponents of toll lanes on Interstate 77, as well as on other highways, have turned their attention to an Aug. 19 vote of a regional transportation planning group, which must endorse a 10-year construction plan for the toll projects to move forward.

The upcoming vote has highlighted the complexities of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, and raised questions for opponents about what can and can’t be done to stop the toll lanes.

Supporters of the toll lanes say a vote against the Transportation Improvement Plan would jeopardize numerous projects.

What would no vote mean?

CRTPO is mostly comprised of elected officials from Mecklenburg, Union and Iredell counties.

City of Charlotte staff members, who assist the planning group, said that CRTPO members must vote on the transportation plan up or down – they can’t use a line-item veto and remove the I-77 toll lanes, or the toll lanes planned for I-485 and U.S. 74.

But there are still options.

Its members could reject the plan, and order staff members to create a new transportation plan that doesn’t include the toll lanes.

Norm Steinman, who works for the city of Charlotte and works with the CRTPO, said that is theoretically possible.

But he warned that a new transportation plan can’t be produced overnight. He said staff members must re-work an analysis on how the entire transportation plan would impact air quality, without the express toll lanes.

That could take between four to six months, he said.

Steinman said CRPTO is facing an October deadline to approve the plan, or it risks a temporary lose of federal dollars for a number of transportation projects in the plan. The federal government requires the Charlotte region to ensure its transportation projects conform with its plan to reduce air pollution.

Steinman said that’s a “hammer” the federal government uses to make cities like Charlotte improve their air. The region’s air has in fact improved significantly in recent years.

Most of the projects in the plan either don’t have federal funding or they aren’t scheduled to begin work in fiscal year 2016. The plan runs through 2025, and many projects are budgeted for future years.

But there are high-profile, important projects underway that are dependent on federal money.

Bob Cook, the CRPTO secretary, said projects that are underway wouldn’t be impacted. He said the Lynx Blue Line extension still needs a federal loan to move forward, and paperwork on that loan could be frozen until a transportation improvement plan is passed.

Cook said he hasn’t asked the federal government if the Charlotte area could receive an extension.

What about no toll lanes?

If the planning organization approved a plan later this year without the toll lanes on I-77, I-485 and U.S. 74, that would allow federally funded projects to move forward.

But it’s unclear when CRTPO could amend that plan to add widening projects for those highways that used free, general-purpose lanes.

The N.C. Department of Transportation has repeatedly said that adding free lanes on I-77 north isn’t an option. The DOT said it did a hypothetical scoring of free lanes and they didn’t score high enough to warrant funding.

But the DOT didn’t conduct an analysis of the specific project that would be the likely candidate for new lanes: Adding one lane in each direction from from exit 23 in Huntersville to either exit 28 or exit 30.

If adding free lanes on I-77 or I-485 scored high enough to be funded, CRTPO could vote add them to its transportation improvement plan.

How does CRTPO voting work?

The I-77 toll lanes project has sparked considerable opposition or concern among numerous local governments, including Mecklenburg County and the towns of Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville.

But the city of Charlotte’s vote on CRTPO holds almost all of the power. Charlotte’s voting member, City Council member Vi Lyles, has a weighted vote equal to 31 of 68 votes.

That means Charlotte can’t make a decision on its own, but it needs almost all of the other voting members to align in opposition to it.

Lyles said last week she will vote for the TIP because she doesn’t want to jeopardize other projects.

Penalty for breaking contract

The DOT has said it would cost up to $100 million to break its contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, the private developer, to build the toll roads.

A bill filed in the N.C. House last week would make Mecklenburg County, as well as the towns of Mooresville, Davidson, Huntersville and Cornelius, pay for the penalty over a five-year period.

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio has said being forced to pay the cancellation penalty could have a “detrimental” impact on the county’s budget.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs