Huntersville elections a ‘referendum’ on I-77 toll lanes

Traffic on I-77 near Exit 30 at Davidson. Some say a state plan to add tolls to the interstate from Charlotte into southern Iredell County influenced Tuesday’s election results in Huntersville.
Traffic on I-77 near Exit 30 at Davidson. Some say a state plan to add tolls to the interstate from Charlotte into southern Iredell County influenced Tuesday’s election results in Huntersville. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain and two town commissioners were booted from office in this week’s elections because of residents’ anger about the state’s plans to widen Interstate 77 with toll lanes, people on both sides agreed Wednesday.

Incumbent commissioner Danny Phillips, a toll opponent and the top vote-getter in the board race, said he believes the election “was a referendum on the toll issue.”

“The citizens wanted to have their voice heard, and they did it through the ballot box,” Phillips said. The incumbents who lost “got complacent and weren’t really listening to the citizens.”

Swain, who is serving her fourth term as mayor, was upset by John Aneralla, another toll-lane opponent. Swain has not been a vocal supporter of the I-77 project but has previously apologized for anti-toll rhetoric by others on the town board.

Sarah McAulay, a former Huntersville mayor who has been a town commissioner for more than a decade, also lost. She chairs a regional transportation board and voted in favor of a broader transportation plan that recommended projects, including the toll lanes, to the state Department of Transportation.

On Wednesday, McAulay agreed toll lanes factored into her defeat, although some voters might have felt she’s served too long, she said.

In addition to the northern Mecklenburg toll lanes, the state is planning to build tolls on two Charlotte highways: U.S. 74 and Interstate 485 in south Charlotte. Some Charlotte leaders acknowledged they noticed what happened in Huntersville’s election and the growing opposition to the tolls.

The I-77 project calls for adding two toll lanes on the interstate between the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One toll lane would continue in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36.

The project has been talked about for years, even getting the backing of local governments. But criticism about the project has reignited in recent years, including after estimates about the cost of the tolls for drivers came out and news that the contract won’t allow for more free lanes for 50 years without a stiff financial penalty.

Gov. Pat McCrory and some other leaders have said it’s too late to stop the project. But that has not stopped opponents.

“I don’t think anything’s done until you lay down, and certainly the citizens spoke loud and clear here that they are not going to lay down,” said Bill Russell, president and CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber’s board approved the concept of managed lanes in the past but changed its stance after revelations about the toll-lane contract, including the stiff penalty for adding more general purpose lanes. Chamber leaders continue to meet with legislators in Raleigh over various alternatives to the project, Russell said.

Cornelius and Davidson also held elections on Tuesday. Russell said all of the candidates in those races opposed the toll project.

Swain did not return requests for comment. Neither did Jeff Neely, another commissioner who lost his re-election bid.

McAulay said she supported the lanes “because that’s the only way we’ll get capacity added to I-77 in this area.” Also, she said, canceling the contract with the private company selected to build and manage the lanes will cost the Lake Norman towns a combined $100 million.

McAulay questioned whether Aneralla and the winners of the commissioner seats can fulfill their “political obligation” to stop the project, since the state is already moving forward with the plans.

Phillips said “we’d still be speaking British” if the colonists had that outlook. He said a lawsuit by the anti-toll-lane group Widen I-77 is alive. And given the election results, Huntersville can let legislators know “we are together against” the toll lanes.

“Every business understands you can get out of a contract,” Russell said. “The penalty we will suffer far down the road will be greater than any penalty we suffer today.”

Aneralla, who said the toll issue was “clearly” a factor in the election, said he also thought voters wanted to support candidates with stronger business backgrounds given the town’s tremendous growth in recent decades. Aneralla owns a consulting business and an asset management fund. He’s a former chairman of the Mecklenburg County GOP.

He also cited a door-to-door get-out-the-vote volunteer effort to spread the word about his campaign.

Back in Charlotte, City Council has been mostly quiet about the issue, in part because the I-77 toll lanes would mostly affect north Mecklenburg towns. That could change, two Republican council members said Wednesday.

Ed Driggs said he thinks the public conversation about toll lanes is getting louder: “I expect we’ll be hearing from constituents.”

Driggs, whose district would contain the I-485 toll lanes, said he is skeptical the tolls would relieve congestion on the highway.

He said City Council could follow Mecklenburg County’s lead. Earlier this year, commissioners voted to direct its representative on a regional transportation group to vote against a statewide plan that included toll lanes.

Council member Kenny Smith also said he questions whether the I-485 toll lanes are a good idea. But he said the council is most likely to respond to a large public outcry, similar to what happened in north Mecklenburg.

Staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak