Politics & Government

Vote signals Charlotte City Council support for toll lanes

Traffic on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte turns into two lanes at I-485. The Charlotte City Council’s transportation and planning committee met Monday to discuss the state’s plans to build toll lanes on Interstates 77 and 485, and U.S. 74.
Traffic on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte turns into two lanes at I-485. The Charlotte City Council’s transportation and planning committee met Monday to discuss the state’s plans to build toll lanes on Interstates 77 and 485, and U.S. 74. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

After a two-hour discussion Monday, a Charlotte City Council committee voted 3-2 in favor of continuing with a plan to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 and other highways, a decision that suggests the full council will back the projects.

Gov. Pat McCrory has asked a regional planning organization to reaffirm or stop the area’s transportation plan, which includes the toll lanes that have sparked intense opposition in north Mecklenburg. The city of Charlotte has nearly half of the votes on the planning organization, known as CRTPO, so the city’s stance on the toll lanes is critical.

Based on the vote and debate Monday, it appears likely that the full council will back the toll lanes next week, though the decision could be close.

Republican Kenny Smith and Democrat Patsy Kinsey were the two committee members who voted no. Democrats John Autry, Greg Phipps and the committee chair, Vi Lyles, voted yes.

After Smith and Kinsey said they wouldn’t vote for the toll lanes, it became clear that Lyles, the committee chairman, would be the swing vote. She initially asked for a delay in the vote – or to not have a vote at all. She later voted yes.

Here is what’s next:

The full council is scheduled to vote Jan. 11 on how Lyles, its member on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, should vote.

On Jan. 20, CRTPO is scheduled to vote on the plan, which includes the toll lanes. Because Charlotte holds 31 of 68 votes on CRTPO, the city’s support for the project is essential.

The I-77 toll lanes have long been controversial, but the opposition has increased in recent months, in part due to concerns of a 50-year noncompete clause that’s part of the N.C. DOT contract with the developer, Cintra. That clause makes it difficult for the state to build new free lanes on the highway.

In November, the Huntersville mayor and two commissioners were defeated because of their support of toll lanes. After the Huntersville election, McCrory asked CRTPO for a new vote on the transportation plan.

Charlotte has long backed toll lanes planned for I-77, I-485 and U.S. 74, and the state believes council members won’t make a U-turn.

City staff members urged council members to continue backing toll lanes. The N.C. Department of Transportation also urged the city to continue supporting the toll lane projects, which also include new pay lanes on I-485 and U.S. 74.

Ned Curran, the chairman of the N.C. DOT board, told council members there would be “enormous” consequences if the city voted against toll lanes, or if it tried to vote against the I-77 toll lane project but to keep other toll lanes.

If CRTPO wanted a new plan, Curran said the N.C. Board of Transportation would likely vote to stop other toll projects.

“If Charlotte retreated from (existing) policy, it would be imprudent to say (the board) would advance two other immediate routes,” he said.

That position is somewhat of a change from the state’s previous position on the toll lanes.

McCrory and the DOT have said they are moving forward with the toll lanes because CRTPO asked for them. They have said they are fulfilling the will of the local planning organization.

At Monday’s meeting, Republican Ed Driggs asked whether CRTPO’s vote was really the final say, and whether the planning organization could reject the I-77 toll lane lane project and not jeopardize other highway projects slated for the area.

Curran and the city said that it would be difficult to remove the I-77 toll lane project, in part because planners would have to conduct a new air-quality study. That would take six months, the city said.

Curran also warned that the state auditor recently said the state could be forced to pay Cintra, the Spain-based private developer for the I-77 project, up to $300 million if it canceled. The DOT had previously said the penalty could be $100 million.

Construction on the toll lanes started in November.

The DOT said Monday it needs to review the auditor’s report.

“Upon initial review the report appears to reaffirm that, while the exact cost of cancellation cannot be calculated, it will clearly be substantial,” the DOT said.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts and four council members who aren’t on the transportation committee attended Monday’s meeting.

At-large member Julie Eiselt, a Democrat, said she asked a friend who works in construction in Spain about Cintra, which has been criticized by toll lane opponents. Eiselt said her friend told her the firm has a good reputation.

Democrats LaWana Mayfield and Al Austin asked questions about the noncompete clause.

During the discussion, Lyles, the committee chairman, tried to steer the conversation away from questions about the I-77 project specifically. She wanted the committee to focus on whether the city should continue with its support of toll lanes in general.

She said the debate over the I-77 project, and how she should vote, would come later.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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