The warning signs are out on Interstate 77, alerting drivers to changing traffic patterns during the construction of new toll lanes.
There are also warning signs for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who has refused to stop the controversial project.
“It is the issue in Iredell County,” says Republican Sen. David Curtis, who represents the southern part of the county. “It is the only issue people want to talk about. There’s a tremendous amount of anger and angst. … I predict it’s going to hurt the governor significantly.”
Anger may run even deeper in north Mecklenburg County, where the interstate is an economic lifeline for an ever-growing number of commuters and businesses.
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The project that spans just 26 miles in two counties could have a far-reaching effect on this year’s election, threatening to cost the governor votes in an area that has been a bastion of support.
In 2012, McCrory got 67 percent of the votes in 11 north Mecklenburg precincts. He won 72 percent of the vote in Iredell, whose population is clustered in the south.
In all, he won more than 60,000 votes in the I-77 corridor from north Mecklenburg to Statesville.
“He’s in big trouble, he’s in huge trouble,” said Bill Russell, president of the Cornelius-based Lake Norman Chamber. “What you’re gonna see is either people not voting for Pat McCrory or people voting for an alternative because he has demonstrated that he’s not listening.”
There will always be a small percentage of voters that are single-issue voters, but the governor brought this issue up for a second vote and allowed the locals to decide whether to cancel the optional toll lane project or not.
McCrory spokesman Ricky Diaz
McCrory could not be reached for comment. Campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz predicted any political damage would be short-lived.
“There will always be a small percentage of voters that are single-issue voters, but the governor brought this issue up for a second vote and allowed the locals to decide whether to cancel the optional toll lane project or not,” he said.
“At the end of the day, Republican voters care about jobs and the economy, and that’s what this election will be about.”
Try telling that to Tami McLemore.
The 47-year-old health care worker sat in a corner booth at Big Bite’z Grill, a Greek diner nestled in a strip mall at Exit 28.
“I used to like (McCrory), but I will not vote for him again,” the Cornelius Republican said over lunch. Why? “Toll roads. Period.”
Becoming a campaign issue
The project, scheduled to open in 2018, is expected to cost $650 million. Under the contract, it would be hard for the state to add additional free lanes for 50 years. The project already has exacted a political cost.
In November, voters turned out Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain and other office holders seen as supporters of the project.
Local officials in north Mecklenburg have voted to push for cancellation of the 923-page contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Cintra, a Spanish company. So have Mecklenburg County commissioners. A handful of area lawmakers asked the governor to stop the project.
Local officials on a regional transportation planning organization unanimously approved the project in 2013 after state officials said it was the only way to widen the interstate in the foreseeable future.
Last year N.C. Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson said it would be inappropriate for McCrory to cancel the contract “without clear direction from the local elected officials who requested and approved (it).”
On Wednesday, the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization voted to continue supporting toll lanes, including the I-77 project. The city of Charlotte, with a weighted vote, backed the project. Representatives of Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville and Pineville along with Mecklenburg, Union and Iredell counties voted against it.
So far, opponents have struck out in court, with regional planners and with the administration. But they say the fight’s not over.
It already has become an issue in the governor’s race.
Former Rep. Robert Brawley of Mooresville, McCrory’s March 15 primary opponent, pledged this week to cancel the contract if elected.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ken Spaulding said the contract “needs to be nipped in the bud.”
“Public/private arrangements can sometimes be good for the taxpayers,” he said. “However, this is not one.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper, the state attorney general, could not be reached. Spokesman Jamal Little declined to say whether Cooper would cancel the contract.
“If Roy Cooper were governor,” he said, “it would not have been signed in the first place.”
‘Underestimating the animosity’
At a breakfast event at The Peninsula Club this month, two Republican lawmakers suggested the toll issue could hurt McCrory.
“I’ve spoken to Pat and he doesn’t feel that the toll lane issue will be a major problem,” said Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican. “I think he and his staff need to do some polling.”
According to Cornelius Today, a local newspaper, Rep. John Bradford acknowledged that the governor is in a “tough spot,” but he hopes voters look at the “big picture.”
I believe that the advisers to the governor have completely underestimated the animosity to this plan.
Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla
“While I do disagree with him on the toll lanes, he’s done many other good things in his first term in Raleigh,” said Bradford, a Cornelius Republican. “He’s given the legislature the tools to make some meaningful changes which we will need to continue our fiscally conservative approach.”
For some, the damage already is done.
“I believe that the advisers to the governor have completely underestimated the animosity to this plan,” said Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla, who was swept into office, in part, on the toll issue. Though he said he’ll vote for McCrory, “absolutely it has hurt him.”
Businessman John Hettwer, a past chairman of the Lake Norman Chamber, has been a longtime McCrory supporter. Now, he plans to vote for Brawley.
“The McCrory administration and/or their campaign team is completely underestimating the anger and the frustration,” he said. “In a normal situation, Brawley and McCrory would not be close. Because of this situation, I think Brawley could beat McCrory in north Mecklenburg and southern Iredell.”
Larry Shaheen, a GOP consultant whose clients include Tarte and Bradford, said the issue has gone beyond simply a toll road.
“This is about a section of the county not being listened to and a section of another county not being listened to,” he said.
Russell, the Lake Norman Chamber president, said the issue has united the area.
“The people from north Mecklenburg have always felt they got the short end of the stick,” he said. “And what Pat McCrory did was not build a bridge, he’s built a wall.
“If he’s happy being a former governor, just keep down this path.”
Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.