Politics & Government

Mecklenburg commissioners want I-77 toll lanes contract dropped

I-77 northbound traffic slowly advances at a crawl during the 5:30 PM commute on Oct. 2, 2014 south of Huntersville.
I-77 northbound traffic slowly advances at a crawl during the 5:30 PM commute on Oct. 2, 2014 south of Huntersville.

Mecklenburg County commissioners on Tuesday approved a resolution that asks Gov. Pat McCrory and state transportation officials to terminate a contract with the developer set to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 – a controversial plan that has drawn ire from many elected officials and residents in the northern half of the county.

Commissioners voted 7-2 on the resolution calling on the state to cut ties with I-77 Mobility Partners and McCrory to investigate alternative funding sources for widening I-77 with general-purpose lanes.

The governor has already rejected including the free lanes in his $2.8 billion bond proposal. He’s also said it’s too late to cancel the toll project. Doing so, he said, would cost the state $50 million to $100 million, and the Charlotte region about $100 million that would go to other projects.

But the resolution, championed by Republican commissioner Jim Puckett, argues the N.C. Department of Transportation can still widen the interstate with $100 million generated from the gasoline tax, whereas the toll lane project would cost taxpayers up to $240 million.

Chairman Trevor Fuller, who voted against it, said paying $100 million to get out of the contract is irresponsible. “If you terminate this contract, then what? You pay the $100 million, then what?”

Under the $650 million toll plan, the express lanes would be built through Puckett’s district and, in his view, do little to ease congestion on the interstate. Toll supporters have said the lanes will reduce traffic at high travel times in a stretch from Charlotte to Mooresville.

In May, county commissioners joined town officials in Cornelius, Mooresville and Davidson in a call for the state to delay the project by 90 days after opponents found a 50-year clause in the final contract. After the toll lanes were completed, DOT would have to pay the developer compensation if it builds new free lanes on the highway.

Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican who has vocally criticized the toll project, said in a statement Tuesday that he plans to file a bill to pull funding for toll lanes in Lake Norman.

Before commissioners cast their vote, Democrat Dumont Clarke, who sits on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, motioned to table the resolution and warned leaders that pushing support for ending the toll lane project would violate an agreement established years ago. Clarke also voted against the resolution.

N.C. DOT Chief Deputy Nick Tennyson told commissioners that while taxpayers will foot an initial $95 million for the project, it includes $145 million in debt-funded toll revenue that will resurface 26 miles of lanes, replace three bridges and fund other highway projects in areas hosting the tolls.

But commissioners and some residents were unmoved. Chuck Suter, a citizen opposing the project, put it this way: “$250 million for a toll road or $100 million for widening the road where it needs to be widened? Let’s do the math. If it costs us $100 million to get out of contract and $100 million to widen the lanes, we still save $50 million.”

Budget approved

Commissioners formally adopted the county’s $1.6 billion 2015-16 budget Tuesday night. Some highlights include:

▪ Property tax rate: Remains unchanged at 81.57 cents per $100 of assessed value.

▪ Merit-based staff pay: Increases an average 3 percent for county employees

▪ Health and Human Services: $596,000 for foster care contracts and placements.

▪ Local match for county-funded teachers ( assuming the state approves the pay increases for teachers): Starting pay for new county-paid, CMS teachers to $35,000; no increase for all CMS teachers who are employed by the state.

▪ Schools funding: $14 million, and $4 million for school technology and maintenance.

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