Eric Frazier

Beyond the great toll lanes debate

I-77 north bound traffic slowly advances at a crawl during the evening commute near Exit 23 in Huntersville.
I-77 north bound traffic slowly advances at a crawl during the evening commute near Exit 23 in Huntersville.

Gov. Pat McCrory and the N.C. Department of Transportation keep saying it’s too late to fight the planned Interstate 77 toll lanes, but the more they say that, the louder the outcry seems to grow.

Last week saw a group of Lake Norman-area civic and business leaders take the fight directly to the General Assembly in Raleigh. They went door-to-door, button-holing lawmakers and asking them to stop the $655 million public-private plan to install 26 miles of toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville.

The anti-toll drumbeat has remained so insistent that Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican, is floating a crazy idea: Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville would hike their own property taxes to pay the $100 million necessary to cancel the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners.

You know you’ve got one seriously hated road project when a lawmaker proposes drowning it with $100 million in tax hikes – and doesn’t get laughed out of the room.

As long as everybody’s all lathered up, I’d like to point those energies at a broader transportation problem.

The Charlotte Area Transit System’s 2030 plan, the blueprint for the region’s mass transit infrastructure, faces a shortfall of as much as $5 billion due to the recession. The plan includes everything from the Blue Line Extension to a Matthews-bound bus rapid transit system. It also covers commuter rail to Lake Norman – possibly the ideal alternative to the dreaded “Lexus lanes” the state’s building on I-77.

Charlotte City Council member David Howard, who co-chairs a regional transit funding group with Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain, says the panel is slowly chipping away at its $5 billion problem.

They’ve applied for federal loans. They’ve pressed state lawmakers to extend local governments’ ability to levy special assessments on property along transit lines. And they’re exploring the idea of using public-private partnerships to cut taxpayers’ costs.

They’re not exactly shouting it from the rooftops, but a request for increased taxes will probably figure in there somewhere.

I’m OK with that. If we don’t invest in our transportation infrastructure, it’s going to get really ugly around here really fast. CATS has estimated that over the next eight years or so, we’ll add a new resident for every five we currently have.

More roads and driving lanes – be they free or toll – won’t be enough to handle rising demand.

All this grassroots energy on I-77 toll lanes is good. Let’s apply some of that to the bigger problem.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com; @Ericfraz on Twitter.

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