Passing the toll-lane hot potato

The Observer editorial board

I-77 northbound traffic advances at a crawl three miles south of Exit 23 in Huntersville.
I-77 northbound traffic advances at a crawl three miles south of Exit 23 in Huntersville. 2014 File Photo

The heat emanating out of Lake Norman is so intense that Gov. Pat McCrory is feeling it 160 miles away. He tried to smother it with a wet blanket Monday, but instead may have just stoked the flames.

Anti-toll voters bounced pro-toll politicians from office last month and warned that McCrory and state legislators could be their next targets if plans for toll lanes on I-77 in north Mecklenburg aren’t scrapped.

So McCrory sent a letter to regional planners and politicians Monday with one clear goal: To give himself political cover by putting the tolls decision squarely on their shoulders – and taking it off of his.

McCrory asked the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization to vote yet again on its long-term plan, which includes tolls. If members reaffirm their support, that’s their decision. If they reverse themselves, that’s OK, too, and the toll lanes will be canceled – but they should understand the consequences, McCrory said (mostly severe financial penalties on Charlotte region transportation funding).

The governor’s attempt to protect himself makes a lot of sense. The local officials of the CRTPO, after all, have voted in favor of toll lanes in one form or another multiple times. If they ask for them and get them, why should McCrory pay the political price?

On the other hand, McCrory’s letter will probably hit a dead end. For one thing, he avoids the most important question. It is not whether local officials want tolls to be a part of the Charlotte region’s future; it is whether the contract the state negotiated and signed with Cintra is in the best interest of Charlotte-area drivers. Regional officials have supported tolls, to be sure, but they had no formal say on the ultimate deal.

And while the ramifications McCrory lists for breaking the contract are all or mostly real, the approach he takes won’t win him any fans among those he’s trying to mollify. He could have written that the state will make work whatever the locals request. Instead, he clearly aims to intimidate them into going along with the tolls.

The CRTPO meets Jan. 20, and chairman Jim Taylor, the Matthews mayor, says the board will take up the issue. Two weeks earlier, on Jan. 4, the Charlotte City Council is expected to vote on how it wants its CRTPO representative, council member Vi Lyles, to cast her 31 (out of 68) votes.

Lyles and the full panel should reaffirm their support for toll lanes as an element in the region’s transportation future. Experience has shown that just adding free lanes will never relieve congestion for long.

But they should also raise questions with McCrory and the N.C. Department of Transportation about the Cintra contract. The state bears responsibility for that contract, its financial penalty if the state builds free lanes, its "dynamic pricing" and questions about Cintra's history.

Optional tolls are part of a solution to relieving congestion in a growing region. But let’s pause and get answers to questions about this contract, regardless of who might pay any political price.