Mecklenburg commissioner wants board to take action on I-77 tolls

Traffic on I-77 near Exit 30 at Davidson
Traffic on I-77 near Exit 30 at Davidson mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett said Wednesday he wants fellow commissioners to take another public stand against toll lanes on Interstate 77, ahead of a transportation group’s upcoming vote on a 10-year regional road plan.

Puckett plans to again ask commissioners to compel their representative on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization to vote against the $650 million toll project. He’ll make the request Jan. 5 when commissioners convene for their first public meeting in 2016.

At the urging of Gov. Pat McCrory, CRTPO will vote Jan. 20 whether to reaffirm the strategy of using optional toll lanes for the Charlotte metropolitan region. If the planning group reverses its decision, McCrory wants its members to start work on a new regional transportation strategy, which is a significant undertaking.

It will be the second time CRTPO decides on the contentious toll lanes project in less than six months. The group first passed the State Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), which includes toll lanes on I-77, in August.

This time, Puckett and others want the vote to be not on the whole list of projects but just on the I-77 toll lanes. State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, said taking a second vote on the entire TIP is an unnecessary “misdirection.”

“The focus is on this project, and that’s all that needs to be voted on,” he said of the tolllanes. He called claims that voting down the projecthurts other projects “bureaucracy getting in the way.”

In August, county commissioners ordered their CRTPO delegate, Vice Chair Dumont Clarke, to vote no on TIP – possibly the first time the board exerted control over how one of its own votes on a policy matter.

Clarke said he was unaware of Puckett’s proposal before the Observer called him Wednesday. He’s not surprised by the request nor will he mount opposition if commissioners decide to direct his vote again, he said.

“I can’t imagine doing anything differently,” he said.

When CRTPO endorsed the transportation plan in August, its members believed they could not vote on any one project in the plan, Puckett said.

But toll opponents are now turning to a CRTPO statute they say will let them stop the tolls without jeopardizing the timeline for other projects the N.C. Department of Transportation plans to pilot in the next decade. Construction on the toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville began in November.

“In the past, we were told all or nothing,” Puckett said of TIP. “The statute clearly says that’s not the case. As a matter of fact, the last time it happened, the city of Charlotte amended TIP to include the streetcar.”

That’s true but amending TIP would mean the region would again undergo an extensive air quality conformity process that could take six months or longer, said CRTPO Secretary Bob Cook.

He said transportation officials sought to approve TIP last summer so the Federal Highway Administration would endorse it ahead of the federal fiscal year’s start in October.

If the CRTPO reaffirms TIP on Jan. 20, nothing changes. If it doesn’t, “then we’re really in uncharted territory,” Cook said.

“We’re not asking them to redo the TIP list,” said Huntersville town commissioner Rob Kidwell, who uncovered the CRTPO statute. “We’re asking them to kill a project that was grandfathered in. Anything on that TIP list would not be affected.”

The outcome mostly depends on Charlotte City Council. Its CRTPO representative carries 31 of the 68 votes cast. By comparison, the county has two votes.

While City Council endorsed TIP last summer, toll opponents believe the city will change course amid growing public outcry against express lanes.

“I think there’s traction there,” Puckett said.

N.C. DOT has said the state will face a $100 million penalty if it cancels the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners and Spanish company Cintra. But Tarte said he’s been in talks with the state auditor and attorney general’s offices and has been told the negotiated penalties could be as high as $300 million, or as low as $15 million.

“There’s no looking into a crystal ball,” he said. “People are throwing numbers around. Even the $15 million to $300 million are educated guesses.”

Meanwhile, a citizens group continues its legal fight against the tolls. Widen I-77, which filed a lawsuit to stop the project, will appear in court Jan. 8 when a judge is expected to hear motions in the case.

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov