Taylor Batten

Is I-77 toll war over? Sort of

By Taylor Batten

Editorial Page Editor

Toll opponents like John Hettwer of Cornelius have no plans to give up the fight.
Toll opponents like John Hettwer of Cornelius have no plans to give up the fight. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

When Dean Wormer kicks the Delta House fraternity brothers out of school in “Animal House,” D-Day says, “War’s over, man.” But Bluto, played by John Belushi, is having none of it.

“Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is!”

N.C. Rep. Charles Jeter, Mecklenburg commissioner Jim Puckett and other leaders fighting the I-77 tolls are all channeling their inner Blutarsky these days. With the Charlotte City Council and this week the regional transportation planning group reaffirming their support for managed lanes, it looks like the war’s over. Gov. Pat McCrory dropped the big one.

But the rowdy brothers in the Lake Norman fraternity aren’t giving up yet. They have at least five strategies still in their toolbox. All, however, have drawbacks.

1 At the top of the list: A political assault on McCrory. Anti-toll folks plan to pressure the governor to take action by promising blowback in his reelection bid in November if he doesn’t.

McCrory sought political cover by shipping the issue to the City Council and the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization. He’ll point to their votes and say his administration is simply implementing what the region’s leaders have requested.

Lake Norman isn’t buying it. Toll opponents know that McCrory and his Department of Transportation can cancel the contract if they choose. Jeter, Puckett and others are trying to funnel voters’ anger toward McCrory, their fellow Republican.

“I’m sure Pat McCrory thinks he’s up 31-0 against the Seahwaks,” Jeter said. “… The people in this community blame him. His transportation department did it. … If you’re talking about an election decided by 100,000 votes or less, then does losing 20,000 or 30,000 votes in this community have an effect? Yeah, I think it will.”

There are some 65,000 voters in north Mecklenburg County and an additional 60,000 in southern Iredell. About 80,000 of them voted in 2012 and McCrory probably won at least 50,000. McCrory stands to lose a big chunk of those.

That’s enough to give McCrory pause. But enough to determine a statewide election that could draw more than 4.5 million votes? Probably not.

2 Jeter vows to find a legislative solution when lawmakers convene in April. He says he’ll talk with General Assembly attorneys about how a bill could kill the tolls, either through denying funding or some other avenue.

But Jeter warns: Legislative leaders are mostly from rural areas and won’t necessarily be sympathetic to urban Mecklenburg.

“I think they’ll help, but they’re going to want their pound of flesh. And unlike the Merchant of Venice, I think they’ll want blood, too,” Jeter said.

In other words, the fate of a bill to stop the I-77 tolls project is highly uncertain.

3 Jeter says CRTPO could vote again, this time specifically on the contract with Spanish developer Cintra, rather than on the larger question of whether managed lanes should be a part of the overall regional strategy.

Doubtful. CRTPO had its chance to do that and didn’t.

4 Anti-toll folks are exploring an effort to repeal Mecklenburg’s half-cent sales tax for transit. If the region isn’t benefiting from it, they argue, why should they pay it on top of tolls? If those opponents have the resources, Puckett could help them put a repeal vote on the November ballot.

Even if it reaches the ballot, its fate is uncertain. (A repeal effort failed badly in 2007.) And even if it is repealed, that does nothing to stop the tolls. It would, however, put a little change back in drivers’ pockets to pay them.

5 Observer columnist Mark Washburn advocated splitting Lake Norman off into its own county, and many residents there like the idea. Some leaders will explore the possibility, but ultimately it will not succeed.

So, it’s looking like the I-77 tolls are a go. First, though, there will be a lot more efforts to stop them. Which brings us back to Animal House.

Bluto finally persuades fraternity brother Otter to go along.

“I think this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part,” Otter says.

Bluto responds: “We’re just the guys to do it.”

The anti-toll maneuvers aren’t stupid. But they might be futile.