Officials discuss I-77 toll lanes at summit
In an effort to stop Interstate 77 toll lanes, a north Mecklenburg state lawmaker said Monday he will introduce a bill to reduce Charlotte’s voting power on a regional transportation board, which he said could make it easier to halt the project.
State Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican, said he would attempt to dilute Charlotte’s weighted vote on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization from 46 percent to 35 percent of votes cast. That could make it easier for north Mecklenburg towns and Mecklenburg County to thwart the toll lanes.
Charlotte officials have expressed concern over the I-77 toll lanes, which would begin uptown. But the City Council has not moved to stop the project, and the city’s voting representative on CRTPO, Vi Lyles, has voted to advance the toll lanes.
“That bill will pass,” Jeter said at a hastily organized “summit” held Monday at Cornelius Town Hall.
He added: “(The city’s) sole purpose is the city of Charlotte.”
In the last several months, a number of local governments have reversed themselves and opposed the toll lanes, in part due to a provision in the contract that would hinder the state’s ability to add free lanes to the highway for the next 50 years.
Several pro-toll lane candidates lost in the Huntersville town elections earlier this month, and Jeter’s meeting was called last week, partially in response to the election results.
The summit included officials from the N.C. Department of Transportation, who reiterated their support for the project. N.C. DOT board chairman Ned Curran said the toll lanes will provide consistent travel time between Mooresville and Charlotte. That can’t happen by adding more free lanes, he said.
The split between the city of Charlotte and other officials was evident.
Mayor Dan Clodfelter didn’t attend. Neither did the mayor pro tem or Mayor-elect Jennifer Roberts. Lyles also didn’t.
At least one of Jeter’s e-mails about the event was sent from his campaign account, which could have thwarted attendance among Charlotte Democrats.
Mecklenburg Commissioner Pat Cotham, a Democrat like Roberts, said she was “stunned” that Roberts and other city officials didn’t attend the meeting in Cornelius.
“I feel like it’s a snub,” she said.
Jeter said the city “thumbed their nose at us today.”
Last week, Roberts said she didn’t know if she could attend the meeting because she might have a conflict. A campaign aide said Monday she had several meetings Monday.
During the mayoral campaign, Roberts said she opposed the I-77 toll lanes because the contract includes the 50-year “non-compete” clause. That provision could force the DOT to pay the private developer compensation if the state builds new free lanes on the highway.
The non-compete clause was discussed at length during Monday’s summit.
Jeter recently joined other state lawmakers in asking Gov. Pat McCrory to cancel the state’s contract for the I-77 tolls from Charlotte to Mooresville. But McCrory threw the issue back to the regional planning group, CRTPO, that approved the tolls as part of a broader transportation package.
The N.C. DOT said Monday the project will be ready for drivers in three years.
Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson said after the summit that he believed other planning organizations from around the state would oppose Jeter’s bill. He said they would object to having the power of their largest city diluted on transportation votes.
If such a bill passed, and CRTPO voted against the toll lanes, Tennyson said the DOT would review the decision with the governor’s office.
Curran acknowledged that not everyone will be able to pay or will want to pay for the toll lanes each day. But he said there will be some instances in which the toll lanes will be useful to everyone.
He said it doesn’t make sense to keep building free, general-purpose lanes.
“Atlanta has a general-purpose lane strategy, and they got what they got,” Curran said.
State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, said Curran’s argument doesn’t make sense.
“By that logic, don’t take a bath because you will get dirty again,” Tarte said.
Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy questioned the fairness of the toll lanes.
“No one lets me write a check to let my kid sit on the front row or get the best teacher,” he said.
Tennyson replied that it’s not realistic to plan on building highways under the old model of only using gas tax money because of opposition to raising taxes.
The state also said that the non-compete clause wouldn’t prohibit the DOT from building new free lanes over the next 50 years. The state might have to pay a penalty, but the lanes could still be built, Tennyson said.
“In this contract, we can make changes,” he said.