Updated Friday, 5:54am
By DAVID BORAKS
The Cornelius Transportation Advisory Board on Thursday came out against proposed toll lanes for I-77 north of Charlotte and urged local leaders to push for alternatives for widening the congested highway.
In a special meeting at Town Hall, the advisory board of local residents unanimously approved a resolution calling tolls a “financial burden” on Lake Norman area residents. The statement also argued that the state’s toll-financed widening plan won’t improve commuting times on I-77.
Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy told CorneliusNews.net Friday he hopes to bring the issue up again at the Town Board on Monday night.
“We’re not thrilled with just accepting the HOT lanes as a done deal,” said Dave Vieser, a Transportation Advisory Board member and author of the resolution approved Thursday. “A lot of people are upset by the fact that we might have to be paying extra money to go on one of these new lanes on Interstate 77 and fear that might be an unfair burden for residents of the Lake Norman area to sustain.”
MONEY FOR CONSTRUCTION
The state Department of Transportation has proposed high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes, to help finance the badly needed widening of I-77 north of Charlotte, where rush hour traffic jams are a chronic problem. HOT lanes would be free for cars with multiple passengers, but other drivers could use the lanes for a fee. Officials say charging tolls and partnering with a private company to build and operate the toll lanes would allow I-77 to be widened as much as 20 years ahead of the current construction schedule.
But opponents have begun pushing back against the HOT lanes plan, saying they want the state to look at other ways of paying for additional lanes, especially general purpose lanes. A grass-roots group called Widen I-77 is helping to lead the charge, and plans a public meeting of its own Jan. 14. (See below.)
Kurt Naas is among the members of Widen I-77 and a member of the Cornelius Transportation Advisory Board, a citizens’ board established to advise the Town Board on transportation issues.
“We wanted to be on record, the Transportation Advisory Board, as saying we don’t like the idea of HOT lanes and we want the town of Cornelius to ask our local leaders to consider alternatives,” Mr. Naas said after Thursday’s meeting.
With the resolution, the advisory board threw its support behind Commissioner Gilroy, who had offered a similar resolution at the Town Board meeting on Dec. 5. He wants the Lake Norman Transportation Commission (LNTC) to help develop alternate plans for widening I-77 – without tolls. (The LNTC is a lobbying group formed by the towns of Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville and Mooresville to push for transportation funding for the area.) Last month, the board took no action on Mr. Gilroy’s resolution, though Commissioner Chuck Travis, who chairs the LNTC, said he would discuss the idea with representatives from the other towns. The LNTC previously has come out in support of “managed lanes,” such as HOT lanes.
Mr. Gilroy said in an email early Friday that he believes the issue will come up again at the Town Board this Monday, Jan. 7.
ALTERNATIVE FUNDING IDEAS
Mr. Naas said he thinks there are “several alternatives” for funding extra lanes on I-77, from cobbling together money from other state and federal sources, including cost savings on current projects, to possibly having area towns chip in to plug any funding gap. He thinks the state hasn’t adequately considered other ways of paying for the widening.
During Thursday’s meeting, Cornelius Assistant Town Manager Andrew Grant told the advisory board that part of the problem has been the way regional officials prioritize transportation projects. That’s done through the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MUMPO. An original plan that would have widened I-77 with general purpose lanes ranked only 92nd among hundreds of projects when it was reviewed years ago, he said.
“The best way I can put it is it’s not everyone’s number one priority, even though you would think it would be,” Mr. Grant said.
A major reason for that, Mr. Naas said, is how MUMPO is structured. Voting power in the group is weighted by population, so Charlotte gets 16 of MUMPO’s 38 votes – which virtually ensures difficulty for projects outside Charlotte, he said. He also said MUMPO’s rankings give more priority to projects closer to Charlotte.
Mr. Vieser said he thinks local officials need to “send a signal” to leaders in Raleigh. “There isn’t a more important transportation issue in the Lake Norman area, certainly Cornelius,” he said.
The Lake Norman area may get a more sympathetic ear in Raleigh right now, Mr. Vieser said. Incoming Gov. Pat McCrory is from the Charlotte area, and the current House Speaker, Thom Tillis, is from Cornelius.
“If we’re going to make a statement, now is the time to make that statement,” Mr. Vieser said.
It’s not clear what might happen next. With the advisory board now on record in support of Commissioner Gilroy, he could bring his tabled resolution back to the board for a vote soon.
Several citizens opposed to tolls also spoke at Thursday’s meeting, including Sharon Hudson, who said the plan won’t solve local drivers traffic woes. “The emperor has no clothes,” she told the board. “We’ve been told publicly this doesn’t reduce congestion.”
Allison Wilhelm said the advisory board and opponents need to develop a strategy as they lobby for alternatives, and as they do, they need portray the problem as a regional one, not just as a local complaint. And, she said, “You need to get the businesses behind you.”
WIDEN I-77 MEETING
Meanwhile, the anti-toll Widen I-77 group plans its own meeting to build opposition to the HOT lanes plan on Monday, Jan. 14. The session begins at 7pm at Cornelius Town Hall, Room 204, 21445 Catawba Ave.
Download a copy of the resolution approved Thursday (PDF)
Jan. 4, 2013, DOT presentation on I-77 HOT lanes, with new project schedule.
Widen I-77 website – www.wideni77.org
Dec. 5, 2012, “As toll lane plans advance, HOT lanes are a hot topic”