Mark Washburn

Last shot to avoid 50 years of toll misery

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

We need to break off the engagement.

Yes, we know this will bring shrill recriminations, hard feelings and a big loss on the floral deposit.

Yes, we know it shall sully our reputation, unleash unknown penalties and set us back.

Breaking up is going to be messy. No doubt about it.

But a bit of pain now sure beats a lifetime of agony.

Gov. Pat McCrory has instructed members of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization to vote once and for all on Jan. 20 on toll lanes along Interstate 77.

Despite growing opposition to the scheme, the state signed a contract to build additional lanes along the artery up to Lake Norman and pay for them with 50 years of tolls.

No, the lanes won’t address congestion on the highway, one of the busiest stretches in the Carolinas and a vital trucking route between the Southeast and the Great Lakes.

To drive motorists into the lanes, it will be in the best interest of the operator to keep congestion robust. To keep the pay lanes fluid, it will be in the best interest of the operator to jerk tolls to the maximum the traffic will bear.

Toll lanes were never the answer to the I-77’s bottleneck. A single additional lane from Exit 23 to Mooresville would do the trick for now and at least a decade into the future.

Instead, the state decided on the nuclear option, which strings toll lanes about 25 miles from Mooresville to the edge of uptown Charlotte.

In the name of progress, it effectively paralyzes the corridor for the next five decades.

We need to break it off. We need to stop this in its tracks.

Money, says the state, is the problem. There isn’t enough of it to expand the road to Lake Norman. Our motor fuels tax isn’t bringing enough in.

Money isn’t the problem. Political courage is the problem.

With fuel prices diving, now is the time to raise the state gas tax to pay for roads our future depends on.

Nobody wants their name on that piece of legislation, even if it dissipates a 50-year headache.

But look at what is happening to the fuel tax – at 36 cents a gallon already among one of the 10 highest in the nation.

It’s retreating.

It falls a penny in January and another penny in July.

Pump it up a dime, I say, and use it to pay off road bonds that will ensure the region stays on the move.

I get good mileage. That would cost me about $1.50 more a week.

Compare that with a $10-a-day toll for the next 50 years to get rescued from the free-parking lanes along I-77.

People won’t like a fuel-tax increase, but it’s a far-lesser burden and far better outcome.

Charlotte’s vote on the issue will swing the decision. On balance, the city needs to show its friends in Raleigh why it was once called the Hornets’ Nest.

Knowing what we know now about the toll-lane contract, it’s going to be a bad, ugly marriage.

We’re at the altar now, the point of no return, and the governor is asking whether we do or we don’t.

No, we don’t. Break it off.

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