Widen I-77, an organization opposed to the construction of toll lanes on the interstate between Charlotte and Mooresville, urge Lake Norman residents to email their legislators in support of the group’s “complete and delete” plan that would finish the interstate’s widening project but buy out the project’s contract and revert the planned toll lanes to general purpose lanes.
A town hall-style meeting Aug. 24 at the Charles Mack Citizen Center in Mooresville so heavily attended, fire code laws prevented more from entering the room after it reached capacity at 150 persons, said Connie Evans, Widen I-77 committee member.
A side room was then opened for the crowd spilling into the hallway.
Widen I-77 group members also asked concerned residents to email email@example.com in support of the “complete and delete” plan and to give input on the recently released report by Philadelphia-based Mercator Advisors by Sept. 9.
The final draft will be presented to the North Carolina Department of Transportation in September.
NCDOT hired Mercator in April to review the $655 million contract with Spanish firm Cintra to explore ways to modify or end the toll lane contract.
The report stated public opposition to the toll lane project is so great it would be a “potential justification” for canceling the project entirely.
If the I-77 toll lane project is continued as it is now, the indirect economic cost to the region over 50 years will total $33 billion while the cost of canceling the project totals only $204 million, says Kurt Naas.
For the state to hire a consulting firm to look over a contract signed three years ago on a project where millions have been spent is “unprecedented and your continued opposition is the reason why,” said Widen I-77 founder Kurt Naas.
The I-77 toll-lane project has been controversial from the start.
The massive construction project will add express toll lanes from uptown Charlotte to Exit 36 in Iredell County.
The developer, Cintra’s subsidiary I-77 Mobility Partners, will manage the project for five decades — “a 50-year straight jacket on Lake Norman,” Naas told the audience.
The toll rates will be based on congestion so the worse the traffic, the higher the toll, Naas said.
Tolls could hit $20 roundtrip during peak periods, Naas said.
“Y’all stand to be affected by this the most, I don’t know if you realize,” Naas told the Mooresville audience. “You have the most number of interchanges of any town in Lake Norman. You have the most number of miles on this project of any town in Lake Norman. You are either going to sit in traffic the longest or you’re going to pay the highest tolls of any town in Lake Norman.”
Although the Mercator report suggested several options to negotiate contract changes and even terminate it, the “complete and delete” option is not included in it, Naas said.
It will be up to the people to contact legislators to promote the option, Widen I-77 officials said.
If this toll lane project is continued as it is now, the indirect economic cost to the region over 50 years will total $33 billion while the cost of canceling the project totals only $204 million, Naas said.
“In conclusion, it’s expensive but the cost of continuing is enormous,” Naas said.
The Mercator report also said inconsistent public engagement has undermined confidence in the project.
Emails obtained through Freedom of Information Act showed state officials and transportation lobbyists involved in the contract said the penalties for canceling the contract ranged from as low as $50 million to as high as $800 million, Naas said.
“You can see why public trust in this is eroded,” Naas said.
In most cases, the termination amount will be comparable to the total amount expended on design and construction, Naas said.
Instead of the word “penalty,” the word “buyout” should be used, Naas said, since the use of the word “penalty” discourages public agencies from exercising termination rights, Naas said.
“Government mistakes are costly but it’s essential to fix them and that’s what we need to do here,” Naas said.
After Naas’ presentation, audience members posed questions about the project.
Sandy Bickett, of Mooresville, asked why trucks traveling on I-77 couldn’t be tolled instead of cars because trucks are the biggest issue that “hamper traffic.”
Nass said it was too late for that because the toll lanes are designed for cars.
In the “complete and delete” plan, trucks would be required to use the two right lanes, however, Naas said.
After the meeting, Bickett said she attended the meeting because traveling to downtown Charlotte on I-77 has turned into “such a fiasco.”
Others asked Naas if Widen I-77 supporters could convince Charlotte officials it would be in their interest not to vote for tolls on I-77.
The regional planning organization, the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization — CRTPO — has voted for the toll lane project in the past.
Any change would also have to be approved by CRTPO.
Naas said Charlotte transportation officials view I-77 only as a mode to bring Lake Norman commuters uptown but that they should realize that the interstate is an “economic artery you are constricting and you will go into cardiac arrest shortly after we do.”
Kate Stevens is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org