Politics & Government

Will I-77 toll road rage claim more victims?

Traffic rolls south on I-77 toward Charlotte on Monday June 23, 2014. Last week’s election results in north Mecklenburg over I-77 toll lanes hold warnings for 2016
Traffic rolls south on I-77 toward Charlotte on Monday June 23, 2014. Last week’s election results in north Mecklenburg over I-77 toll lanes hold warnings for 2016 jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Road rage is escalating in north Mecklenburg County, where critics of a planned toll road have claimed their latest victims – and warn there could be more.

“In ’16, when it comes election time, anybody who’s not on the right side of this are going to be in trouble,” said Huntersville commissioner Danny Phillips.

Phillips was part of a wave of victories this month by people opposed to the construction of Interstate 77 toll lanes.

The state has signed a 50-year contract with a Spanish company to design, build and operate the lanes. The project calls for two toll lanes between the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One toll lane would continue in each direction to Exit 36.

The contract could hinder the construction of additional free lanes on the road for 50 years. The state transportation department says under some circumstances it could still add a general-purpose lane. But that does little to appease toll critics.

Last week outrage over the toll contract swept Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain out of office and lifted Phillips to the top of the ticket. Anti-toll candidates also did well in other northern towns as toll opponents continue to flex their muscles.

Next year their rage could be directed at Republicans such as Gov. Pat McCrory, who said last summer that it was too late to cancel the construction contract.

McCrory, who carried Mecklenburg by 3,101 votes in 2012, needs the support of heavily Republican north Mecklenburg to carry it again. At least for now, that support is questionable.

“Any elected official, if they don’t make genuine efforts to stop the project, they will be un-elected,” says Vallee Bubak, a Davidson Republican. “That is the goal of thousands of people now involved in this effort.”

Bubak is a regular poster on a Facebook page called “Exit 28 Ridiculousness,” a site with nearly 4,600 members. This week, Davidson blogger Rick Short took note of all the organized anti-toll groups including Lake Norman Conservatives, WidenI77.org, and I-77 Business Plan.

“In this movement you will find people of all income and education levels,” he wrote. “You’ll find people most comfortable in bathing suits on the lake to people most comfortable in business suits in boardrooms. You’ll find Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, Progressives and … ‘none of the above’.”

To be sure, opposition to tolls isn’t new. Elected officials from Iredell and Mecklenburg counties as well as the towns of Mooresville, Cornelius, Huntersville and Davidson passed resolutions this year calling for a stop to the project.

But this month’s election caught the attention of area lawmakers such as Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius and Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville, both Republicans. Tarte is working on what’s expected to be a plan to kill the toll project. On Monday, Jeter called for a regional “summit” of elected leaders to try to form a consensus.

I asked North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper about the tolls when he came to Charlotte on Tuesday. A Democrat running for governor, he said a statewide bond referendum offered “the perfect opportunity” to include money to widen I-77.

McCrory proposed a road bond measure, though it didn’t include money for I-77. But when the General Assembly put a $2 billion bond package on next year’s ballot, no road projects were in it.

“Strong governors can get things like that done,” Cooper said.

So expect the toll issue to continue to fester, at least as long as an I-77 traffic jam.

“It’s going to be a huge thing in the governor’s race,” Phillips says. “If they don’t do something to stop this thing, I’d sure hate to be running for their office.”