Politics & Government

I-77 toll foes hit a dead end in Senate

Work continues in the median of I-77 north at Huntersville on 03.03.16. The latest effort to stop the Interstate 77 toll project reached a dead end Tuesday in a second floor conference room at the N.C. General Assembly.
Work continues in the median of I-77 north at Huntersville on 03.03.16. The latest effort to stop the Interstate 77 toll project reached a dead end Tuesday in a second floor conference room at the N.C. General Assembly. Mark Hames

The latest effort to stop the Interstate 77 toll project reached a dead end Tuesday in a second floor conference room at the N.C. General Assembly.

That’s where Republican senators caucused and decided not to move a House-passed bill that would have canceled the $660 million project.

“We will have managed lanes in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, you can run that in headlines,” said Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican who opposes the project. “Managed lanes – coming to a county near you.”

The decision means that construction will go on, at least until another attempt to block it is mounted next year.

Toll opponents – and there are lots of them – had waged an aggressive campaign to persuade senators to pass House Bill 954, which would cancel the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of the Spanish firm Cintra.

This month the bill passed the House 87-21 with strong bipartisan support. It was a margin that one toll critic said “should send a loud message to Gov. Pat McCrory.”

The bill’s sponsors, Republican Reps. Charles Jeter of Huntersville and John Bradford of Cornelius, argued that the problem isn’t the tolls but the contract that would, among other things, make it all but impossible for the state to add any additional free lanes for 50 years.

Opponents lobbied senators in person and bombarded them with phone calls and emails, hoping they would act before the legislature’s short session ends this summer.

“Obviously we’re deeply disappointed,” said Kurt Nass, leader of the citizens group WidenI77. “It’s the end of the road for the short session but Tarte’s already said he’s going to introduce the bill again in the long session.”

The outlook for the bill never really looked positive in the Senate. Last year, Tarte introduced a bill similar to Jeter’s, but it never even got a committee hearing.

This year, GOP senators would have had to agree to move the latest bill through committee before any possible vote. But Tarte said they were bothered by arguments from transportation officials that cancellation of the I-77 project would affect funding for as many as 73 other road projects.

“No one knows how to control the ripple effect across so many projects,” he said.

Earlier, Jeter said he knew the bill faced an uphill battle in the Senate.

“They look at it more from the negative side of the statewide cost issue than what I think is the real issue,” he said, “which is the negative impact to the Lake Norman region if we don’t cancel it.”

While the cancel-the-contract crusade appears dead for this year, anybody who’s been around the General Assembly knows that nothing is certain until the final gavel falls.

Construction began last November on the project that would add toll lanes alongside existing free lanes between Charlotte and Mooresville. It’s scheduled to be finished in 2018.

“It’s like everything else in Raleigh,” said Mecklenburg Commissioner Jim Puckett, a toll opponent. “Nothing is ever what it appears to be.”

A sad update

In my last column, on June 8, I recounted the effort launched by Charlotte bank executive Nancy Crown to promote civil political dialog in North Carolina and across the country. Three days later she died suddenly while vacationing in California.

On Tuesday, friends and family gathered to remember Crown at a memorial service. In lieu of flowers, they asked people to consider signing the petition she started to encourage bipartisanship and civility. In the last two weeks, the number of signers jumped from fewer than 100 to nearly 1,500.

You can find the petition, as well as a video Crown narrated, at BridgeThePoliticalDivide.com.

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