Mark Washburn

Why the big dog must say no to tolls

I-77 traffic crawls northward three miles south of Exit 23 in Huntersville, a longtime bottleneck as the road squeezes from four lanes to two.
I-77 traffic crawls northward three miles south of Exit 23 in Huntersville, a longtime bottleneck as the road squeezes from four lanes to two.

On Election Day, nobody cares about Delaware or Wyoming.

All eyes turn to Florida, Texas and California, the big-dog states with the most votes.

On Jan. 20, Charlotte will be the big-dog voter on Interstate 77 toll lanes, an issue that will impact 50 years of growth. Charlotte City Council may decide as early as Monday how to direct its votes.

On the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, the city controls 31 of 68 votes. It’s not just the big dog – it’s basically the only dog.

Even as north Mecklenburg towns and county representatives have turned against the toll scheme once the details of the contract became known, many in Charlotte consider it a distant issue. If people want to live near Lake Norman, goes the thinking, let them pay to drive downtown. Not our problem.

But it is.

Here are five reasons Charlotte should vote against I-77 tolls:

▪  Toll lanes need traffic jams to prosper. They all but guarantee five decades of frustrating congestion.

Our big sister, Atlanta, is extraordinary in so many ways. But any discussion about its charms ends with a declaration that traffic is toxic.

A lifetime bottleneck on Charlotte’s northern rampart throws the city’s urban planning reputation into disrepute. We don’t want to be Atlanta, we often say. We want to be something better.

Toll lanes will make us worse.

▪  Charlotte, poised at the confluence of two major Interstate highways, is a transportation hub. Trucking and warehousing are big, if little-noticed, industries.

A huge intermodal yard at the airport linking trucking, rail and air is one of the city’s boldest ventures in cementing its regional ascendance.

But trucks will have no access to toll lanes. They’ll be crawling through the morass of I-77, wasting fuel and time as they do now during the road’s daily jams.

Either you bet on transportation or you don’t. Either you engineer for efficiency or you constipate the system for 50 years.

▪  Those toll lanes will begin in Charlotte at I-77 and the Brookshire Freeway. They will plop into the existing right-of-way set aside for highway expansion.

Future free lanes in the urban core? Forget about it. For 50 years.

▪  Lake Norman is not Charlotte’s enemy. It’s a good neighbor. It exists only because Charlotte is nearby.

It is an amenity that bolsters the city’s magnetism for a highly-skilled, well-educated work force. Clogging the artery to the region is like severing a valued limb.

▪  Why must Charlotte, the state’s primary growth engine, bear the burden of toll roads on I-77, Independence Boulevard and I-485?

We needn’t be compliant pawns as the state tries to abdicate its duty to provide the region with efficient transportation.

We’re told there’s no money to build free lanes for the largest, fastest-growing urban area in the Carolinas.

There is, however, $216 million to build a new Bonner Bridge to the Outer Banks so wealthy tourists may conveniently access their summer mansions.

Shouldn’t that be a toll bridge?

Or maybe people we send to Raleigh to represent us should be formally required to get forehead tattoos that say “Sucker.”

Charlotte – with a rich, dynamic future before it – is at the precipice of a 50-year mistake. With one vote, Charlotte – the big dog – can drive it away.