Lake Norman & Mooresville

New mayor thrusts Huntersville into toll-lane issue

John Aneralla
John Aneralla

Opponents of a toll-lane project through the Lake Norman area believe they sent a message Nov. 3 with the election of John Aneralla as Huntersville’s mayor over four-term incumbent Jill Swain.

After being sworn into office Dec. 7, Aneralla, former chairman of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party, said he wanted to make sure that message was delivered to the right people.

Aneralla and half of Huntersville’s six-member Town Board were swept into office in a wave of opposition to the N.C. Department of Transportation’s public-private partnership to add toll lanes to a 26-mile stretch of Interstate 77 from Charlotte through Mooresville.

Aneralla kicked off the first Town Board meeting of his inaugural term by proposing a resolution asking N.C. DOT to cancel the $647 million contract it finalized this year with I-77 Mobility Partners, a U.S. subsidiary of Spanish company Cintra, which manages more than 1,200 miles of highway in nine countries through projects in which it has invested nearly $22 billion.

Commissioners passed the measure unanimously.

“We heard from a lot of voters that the I-77 project was the most-important issue,” said Aneralla, who runs his own asset-management business. “Many people felt strongly that we should pursue canceling the project. This was the first step (the newly elected board) could take toward doing that.”

Among those who didn’t get to vote on the I-77 resolution were Sarah McAulay and Jeff Neely, both of whom, along with Swain, lost re-election bids. Longtime Commissioner Ron Julian did not seek re-election.

While never a vocal advocate of the I-77 project, Swain had apologized for the anti-toll rhetoric of some Huntersville commissioners, including Danny Phillips, who ended up as the top Town Board vote-getter Nov. 3. The newly seated commissioners elected Phillips mayor pro tem.

McAulay, a former Huntersville mayor, became a target because of her role as chair of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, the panel of local elected officials that prioritizes road projects funded with state and federal dollars. The I-77 toll lane project was part of a five-year road funding plan approved by CRTPO in June. Neely, meanwhile, became vulnerable when he didn’t echo the toll-lane opposition of some other commissioners.

The Huntersville resolution calls on N.C. DOT to scrap the I-77 project, through which Cintra will finance the bulk of the cost, then be paid back through tolls it collects from drivers using the new, managed lanes over the 50-year life of the contract. The existing, general-purpose lanes will remain free.

The resolution also asks for a new project to add free lanes on I-77 from mile marker 20, near the southern edge of Huntersville, to Exit 36 in Mooresville. N.C. DOT officials say such a project would cost $250 million to $300 million, and that it’s uncertain when – or if – it would rise to the top of the region’s highway wish list.

Transportation officials also estimate that the state would owe Cintra about $100 million if N.C. DOT were to cancel the contract. About $95 million in taxpayer funds are now going toward the entire, 26-mile toll lane project.

‘Disastrous’ design

In Cornelius, meanwhile, newly re-elected Mayor Chuck Travis is asking N.C. DOT and N.C. Secretary of Transportation Nick Tennyson to address what Travis calls a “fatal flaw” in the toll lane project.

As designed, large trucks would be prohibited from using the toll lanes. Travis, who joined Davidson Mayor John Woods last month on a self-funded trip to Texas to view work by Cintra in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said business leaders and transportation officials attributed much of the success of projects there to the fact that that freight-carrying trucks used the toll lanes, leaving more capacity for smaller vehicles in the free lanes.

For the I-77 project, current design standards call for a surface in the toll lanes that would not hold up to truck use over time.

“The inability to have truck traffic, both service and long haul, in the managed lanes due to inadequate asphalt thickness will be disastrous,” Travis wrote in a Dec. 7 letter to Tennyson. “In Texas, trucks use the managed lanes since they are typically traveling through the corridor and are willing to pay a toll for reliable travel times. If trucks have the ability to use the managed lanes on I-77, this will increase the capacity of general purpose lanes for our local use.”

At a meeting with state and local officials at Cornelius Town Hall last month, Tennyson said allowing trucks in the toll lanes on I-77 was a possibility but cautioned that it would mean a change in construction specifications and, likely, increased cost.

“Yes, there is a willingness to look at a lot of different things about the contract,” Tennyson said. “There is, however, the understanding that there is a business deal. So it would be a negotiation between the two parties.”

Cornelius commissioners this year passed resolutions urging CRTPO to reject the I-77 project and asking Gov. Pat McCory to cancel the contract with Cintra. The governor has repeatedly refused to intervene.

John Deem is a freelance writer: