Viewpoint

Why act surprised over no new free lanes on I-77?

John Deem
John Deem jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

As a journalist who spent nearly two years covering the upcoming addition of high-occupancy toll lanes to a 26-mile section of I-77 in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, I’m not surprised by the recent media and political frenzy over a non-compete agreement that essentially prevents the addition of free, general-purpose lanes along the same stretch for at least 50 years.

I’m also not surprised by the ignorance and political expediency left in the wake of the latest wave of indignation.

I care not whether I-77 is widened with toll lanes, free lanes or not at all. However, the latest protestations by local politicians – in the form of toothless resolutions promptly swatted away like gnats by the N.C. Department of Transportation – are more proof that when it comes to this polarizing public-private partnership, local elected officials have either not been paying attention or, worse, are using the project’s rising opposition as political cover.

Long before its June 2014 agreement with mega-contractor Cintra, N.C. DOT made clear to local governments – and to the few media outlets actually listening – that it would be prohibited from adding general-purpose lanes over the 50-year life of the contract.

Widen I-77, the Lake Norman area group suing N.C. DOT and the state in an effort to scuttle the project, has discussed the stipulation since at least February of 2012, when it was mentioned in a presentation to the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.

In an October 2014 presentation to the group Lake Norman Conservatives, Widen I-77 noted:

“(N)o more ‘free’ lanes would be allowed to be built on I-77 for the life of the contract. I-77 would have two ‘free’ lanes from Exit 36 to Exit 23 for 50 years regardless of the growth in the Lake Norman region over that time.”

So, why the hullabaloo now over wording in an agreement that merely documents what N.C. DOT has been saying and opponents have known for years?

Largely because gullible and uninformed media outlets continue to turn to a time-honored tactic for covering a controversial yet complicated issue: They’ve focused their reporting on the project’s opposition rather than on the complexities of the project itself.

Widen I-77 founder Kurt Naas and others in his group have been masterful in their manipulation of the media and influence over local elected officials. Resolutions by Mecklenburg, Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville commissioners expressing concern were the latest in a long string of public relations triumphs for Widen I-77. But again, those elected officials should have known long ago that N.C. DOT could not add general-purpose lanes without a severe financial penalty, so their votes were either exercises in political expediency or utter ignorance.

As one former N.C. DOT official told me last week: “This is a case of making old information sound new – and controversial.”

The sad part is, too many of us are willing to bite on that rotting bait.

John Deem is a writer who lives in Mooresville.

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