Eric Frazier

Can scars over I-77 fight be healed?

By Eric Frazier

North Carolina Secretary of Transportation, Nick Tennyson explains the state's stance for the Interstate 77 toll lane project to a packed crowd at the Cornelius Town Hall Monday morning, November 23, 2015.
North Carolina Secretary of Transportation, Nick Tennyson explains the state's stance for the Interstate 77 toll lane project to a packed crowd at the Cornelius Town Hall Monday morning, November 23, 2015. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Back in January, the N.C. Department of Transportation won a decisive victory in the fight over Interstate 77 toll lanes when a regional transportation group reaffirmed its support for such projects.

It meant the controversial $655 million public-private project could move forward. But when Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson stopped by last week to talk about the project, he still sounded frustrated.

I asked why he seemed so cranky about it. Didn’t he win, after all?

His reply: “I get worked up when people call me a crook or an idiot or some combination thereof.”

Yes, it’s been intense, this fight over 26 miles of high-occupancy toll lanes from uptown to Lake Norman.

Opponents in the Lake Norman region couldn’t care less about Tennyson’s feelings. But they should care about the letter he sent last week to regional political leaders. He’s asking them to share their specific concerns about the state’s contract with I-77 Mobility Partners and its parent firm, Cintra.

Tennyson and N.C. transportation board chairman Ned Curran told me they will take to Mobility Partners any contractual concerns that can still be tweaked by mutual consent of the state and the builder.

The letter specifically mentions modifying the toll lane entrance and exit points, and allowing various sizes of trucks – both key concerns north Mecklenburg folks have raised.

This goodwill tour won’t satisfy toll opponents. Still, DOT is right to try.

Barring an unlikely intervention from the General Assembly, this much-hated, long-debated project is going forward. The state is investing $90 million in this thing.

To keep it out of the tank once it opens, the state needs the folks they’re building it for – that would be you, irate Lake Norman residents – to pay tolls. And it’s the DOT’s statewide test case to show how private capital can plug the gap between our growing road needs and our shriveling gas tax revenue.

Tennyson and Curran call this a slam-dunk win for North Carolina. They believe the DOT and the media haven’t communicated it well.

Not to sound defensive, but consider the two messages we’re working with here.

Toll opponents: Kill the contract. Sort the rest out later.

The DOT: Technically we could, but practically we can’t because the penalty would be who knows how big and besides we’ve got this new strategic highway plan where local leaders prioritize roads and your local officials have reaffirmed that they support toll lanes. And let’s be clear, the governor is not dodging this issue but rather this is just how our new system works, and really it’s all for the best, trust us.

You see my point. Tough sell.

If Gov. Pat McCrory hoped tempers would cool on this, he must be disappointed. One anti-toll group’s Facebook page depicts him as a rat.

Mecklenburg commissioner Jim Puckett dismissed the DOT’s outreach as political damage control by leaders who fear ongoing rancor makes similar projects tougher.

“As a sales guy, here’s what you learn early on,” Puckett said. “Once you convince the buyer, you stop selling. Even with a signed contract, they are still trying to make the sale. They know the public ain’t buying it.”

True enough. But the DOT’s already made this $655 million purchase. If we’re not going to return it – and it sure looks like we’re not – let’s make it work.

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

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