Lake Norman business leaders push against I-77 tolls plan

File photo: Some Lake Norman business leaders aren’t giving up in a fight to stop toll lanes on I-77.
File photo: Some Lake Norman business leaders aren’t giving up in a fight to stop toll lanes on I-77. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Lake Norman business leaders say it’s not too late to change the state’s plans for Interstate 77 toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville. And they’re working to do just that.

Bill Russell, president and CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, said he and other business leaders have met with state legislators on other ways to expand the bottle-necked highway.

And state Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Huntersville, told me on Friday that he and state Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Cornelius, intend to announce a “plan of attack” on Monday. He said he needed to finalize details with Tarte over the weekend and could be no more specific. Tarte couldn’t be reached.

“I think we have to make sure we listen to the voters and not the bureaucrats in Raleigh,” Jeter said.

Voter anger over the planned tolls led to the defeat of Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain and town commissioners Sarah McAulay and Jeff Neely in the Nov. 3 election.

The state signed a 50-year contract with Spain-based Cintra to design, build and operate the lanes. The project calls for two toll lanes between the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One toll lane would continue in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36.

Despite a $100 million penalty to back out of the contract, “if we let it continue, we have failed in leadership for the next five decades,” Russell said. “We have got to do everything possible to either stop this contract or make significant changes to the contract.”

The chamber’s board approved the concept of managed lanes in the past but changed gears on the toll lanes after revelations about the contract, including the stiff penalty for adding more general purpose lanes to I-77.

And what does the contract say about the lanes alleviating I-77 snarls in north Meck, asked John Hettwer, president of Cornelius-based Payroll Plus and past chamber chairman. “It says nothing at all.”

Russell said leaders have pitched several options to legislators. One is to turn a planned toll lane in each direction into a general purpose lane. Another is to model the Pennies for Progress initiative in York County.

When the S.C. Department of Transportation said it lacked money for roads improvements there, voters approved a special sales tax to pay for the projects, Russell said. “Not only did it pass the first time, but three more referendums passed, because they can see the improvements being made,” he said.

Russell said he and many other leaders were convinced by transportation planners that the only way to expand I-77 was through managed lanes.

“On reflection, I did not think it was the best course of action in 2012 but abdicated my leadership role on the issue,” Russell said. “Our chamber of commerce should have pushed harder for a different strategy and as their executive, some of that blame rests with me.”

“That said, we all still have time to get it right,” he said.