Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain on I-77 toll lanes: residents need to ‘let this happen’

Lake Norman-area protesters went to Raleigh in May to ask lawmakers to cancel the $655 million toll lanes project.
Lake Norman-area protesters went to Raleigh in May to ask lawmakers to cancel the $655 million toll lanes project. The (Raleigh) News & Observer

She’s the last person opponents of the Interstate 77 toll lanes want to hear from. And she’s saying the last thing they want to hear.

Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain, whom voters unceremoniously showed the door in the recent election, still believes the unpopular toll lane plan remains the right thing to do.

“There’s not a way out of the contract (with Spain-based road-builder Cintra) without paying for it,” she told the editorial board recently. “What we need to do now is we need to move forward. We need to let this happen.”

That’s precisely what toll opponents say they will not do. They turned out in force to beat Swain and other supporters of the toll lanes at the polls, and now GOP Sens. Jeff Tarte and David Curtis and Reps. Charles Jeter and John Bradford are at the front of an all-out last-minute blitz to stop the project, even as construction inches forward this week.

Swain clearly had a lot of pent-up emotion to vent over the project and its role in her political downfall. She decried the sharp and angry tenor of the debate over the 26-mile toll lane project, saying that toll opponents called her “Jill Swine” and other names online. Some, she added, even went so far as to say toll supporters should be hanged.

She suggested the politicians now leading the effort to kill the tolls are doing so out of political expediency, not because they believe the toll lanes plan to be flawed.

“Jeter and Tarte saw what happened to me in my election,” she said. “I was not going to kowtow to these loud nasty voices. I have to represent what public service is all about, and it’s not giving people an earful of nice words they want to hear” if the facts dictate otherwise.

She added that even if the state bows to what she called “this craziness that’s going on in Lake Norman” and builds free lanes instead of toll lanes, rapid growth will leave the area congested again in five to 10 years.

She said the toll lanes project represents a better solution in part because it triggers $145 million in bonus funding for improving connectivity on local roads in Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson. That, in addition to the toll lanes, will resolve the region’s congestion, she believes. A “silent majority” of residents feel the same way, she contends, but are being drowned out by “the loud minority” who oppose the tolls.

Of course, voters in Huntersville heard the three-term mayor’s pitch on the toll lanes and soundly rejected it in favor of toll opponent John Anarella. While she has strong words for toll opponents, she claims she harbors no “sour grapes” over the election.

“Maybe now, because of the election results, maybe I can be the voice to tell people we are better than you are behaving,” she said. “We’ve got to bring people back together and heal this.” -- Eric Frazier