Inside County Government

Transportation vote won’t stop fight against I-77 toll lanes

Traffic rolls south on I-77 towards Charlotte on June 23. North Carolina motorists are now paying on average 98 cents a gallon less than they did a year ago, according to auto group AAA.
Traffic rolls south on I-77 towards Charlotte on June 23. North Carolina motorists are now paying on average 98 cents a gallon less than they did a year ago, according to auto group AAA.

Charlotte’s transportation planning group on Wednesday endorsed a 10-year road plan that includes express lanes, but that doesn’t mean the vocal and often heated fight against tolls in northern Mecklenburg County has ended.

Instead, according to some project opponents, both the legal and legislative battles go on and will likely continue into next year.

“Every single week, the support against this plan grows,” Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett said.

Puckett, an outspoken critic of the plan and the state’s contract with the project developer, said he will continue talks with lawmakers in Raleigh and leaders in the region to build opposition to the tolls. The N.C. Department of Transportation continues to back toll lanes, hailing them as a way to ease congestion on Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Mooresville.

“We anticipate (the fight) to go well into the first or second quarter next year until we start to feel like we’re running out of time,” Puckett said. “It’s still a matter of convincing people to cancel the contract.”

The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization voted 54-10 to approve the Transportation Improvement Program, a bundle of regional road projects that includes the divisive $655 million toll lanes project.

The group’s endorsement allows the Federal Highway Administration to adopt the plan, giving the N.C. DOT leeway to begin work that will bring improvements to Brookshire Freeway, Little Sugar Greenway and more than 80 other highways and roads.

Mecklenburg, which has two of the 68 weighted votes on the CRTPO, voted against the plan at the direction of county commissioners, who earlier this month changed a policy allowing them to direct the vote of their CRTPO delegate. By comparison, the city of Charlotte’s representative has 31 votes.

But the transportation planning group was never the be-all and end-all in the war on tolls, Puckett said.

In fact, it was just another way to send a message that tolls are not welcome by many in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, he said. The animus has always and will continue to center on the state’s deal with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of the Spanish company Cintra.

If the transportation planning group voted down the TIP, it would merely have been a “symbolic statement” to debunk DOT’s claims that it is delivering on wishes county and town leaders expressed in 2013 when they approved the TIP that included toll lanes, said Kurt Naas, leader of Widen I-77, the citizens group opposing tolls.

“We were looking to eliminate that argument,” Naas said. “The fact that (the CRTPO) did not really has no bearing on the validity” of the group’s stance against the tolls.

Widen I-77 has sued the state over the project. The lawsuit is pending, Naas said.

Meanwhile, legislative efforts to stop the toll lanes are in a “holding pattern,” Puckett said.

Sen. Jeff Tarte and Rep. John Bradford’s attempts to introduce other legislative options to widen the interstate have yet to gain steam. And by Thursday, the House Rules committee had not discussed a draft bill that would terminate the tolls contract but withhold sales tax revenues from the county to pay a $100 million penalty.

That doesn’t mean Puckett plans to quiet down.

“It takes time to educate enough people to start to move the ball significantly,” he said.

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