Politics & Government

Breaking silence, Charlotte mayoral Democrats say they oppose I-77 toll lanes

At a mayoral debate earlier this week, the four prominent Democratic candidates for mayor were asked whether they supported the toll lanes on Interstate 77.

Three candidates – Mayor Dan Clodfelter, Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes and former County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts – said they didn’t.

At-large council member David Howard’s answer was “somewhat.”

The elected officials’ opposition, or hesitancy, toward the toll lanes is somewhat of a surprise. During this summer’s controversy over the toll lanes, the City Council did not discuss the issue publicly, and the city’s representative cast the deciding vote to move the project forward.

Mecklenburg County, along with several towns, either expressed concern about the project or opposed it.

The toll lanes have been controversial for years, but the issue flared up again after it was reported that the N.C. Department of Transportation’s contract with a private developer included a noncompete clause that would make it difficult to build new lanes on I-77 for 50 years.

Clodfelter was asked about the toll lanes and the noncompete clause by a reporter this summer. The mayor declined to say what he thought of the noncompete clause and said he didn’t see a reason to discuss it, because the council’s transportation representative, Vi Lyles, hadn’t asked them to bring it up.

Clodfelter said Thursday he always had concerns about the toll lanes.

“We never could find the leverage point that would make a difference,” he said. “The idea of stopping the (long-range transportation plan) and bringing transit projects to a halt was not an option. The question has never been, ‘Do you really like it?’ ”

Barnes had questioned the project in a series of emails between council members, but he did not discuss the issue either.

He said this week that it was too late to protest the state’s plan.

“If I had known three or four years ago that the state would enter into a 50 year contract with a company that has had some of the challenges (toll lane developer) Cintra has, I would’ve spoken up then,” Barnes said. “As the details of the contract have come out, my concerns have increased. We’ve been told that the governor, state legislature and NCDOT won’t revisit the issue.”

Howard used to be the city’s representative on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, the organization that has cast important votes in favor of toll lanes. Howard has voted for the lanes as a member of that organization.

“They told me to give a one word answer, so I said, ‘somewhat,’” Howard said. “In a world where funding is limited, we have to find more creative ways. Public-private-partnerships is one of the things that makes sense.”

But he said he isn’t familiar with some of the details of the contract with a developer to build the lanes. One part of the contract that has sparked new opposition to the project is the noncompete clause.

Howard in the past has said he wasn’t bothered by the noncompete clause, but said Wednesday he doesn’t know the contract’s details.

“At the point where they started negotiating the deal, I was no longer (a planning organization) member,” Howard said. “…I think the concept of what we are trying to achieve is still the right thing. I wasn’t prepared to give a blanket yes.”

Roberts hasn’t held public office since she left the county board in 2011.

Her spokesperson said she “supports public private partnerships to help pay for transit projects but is opposed to the 50 year noncompete clause in the I-77 project.”

On the Republican side, former city council member Edwin Peacock said the toll lanes are only an option of last resort. Peacock left the council in 2011.

His opponent, Scott Stone, said “nobody likes toll lanes” in Tuesday’s forum but declined to offer more details.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs