By DAVID BORAKS
About 125 people crowded into the Cornelius Town Hall board room Monday night, where leaders of the anti-toll citizens group Widen I-77 called for a halt in plans for toll lanes on I-77 north of Charlotte. The group wants the state to look for other ways of paying to widen the interstate, arguing that toll lanes won’t help congestion in the Lake Norman area and could hurt the region’s economy by scaring away businesses.
The group also is expressing concern over the N.C. Department of Transportation’s plan to hire a private company – potentially one based outside the U.S. – to build and operate the toll lanes. (That approach is known as a public-private partnership, or “P3.”) And they say the planned 50-year contract with that operator could prevent the state from widening the road later, at least not without financial penalties.
“HOT lanes cost much more, they don’t relieve congestion and it puts us in a contractual straight-jacket for the next 50 years,” said Kurt Naas, a Cornelius resident and Widen I-77 leader.
Several speakers said they think the area shouldn’t be saddled with tolls, when other parts of the state – and even other parts of the Charlotte area – have multi-lane roads without tolls.
“We also need to convince NC DOT to put the brakes on, and postpone awarding the contract until all the alternatives have been vetted,” said Vince Winegardner, a Davidson resident who helped give the presentation Monday night.
For the past couple of years, state and local officials have been working on plans for High Occupancy Toll lanes, or HOT lanes, on I-77 north of Charlotte. The state lacks the funding to widen the badly congested highway immediately – the road widening isn’t in the state plans for decades. State officials say charging tolls would help pay for the work as much as 20 years sooner than planned, and would encourage carpooling. HOT lanes would be free for cars with multiple passengers, but other drivers could use the lanes by paying a fee.
The project in its current form calls for two HOT lanes in each direction from the Brookshire Freeway/I-277 in Charlotte to Exit 28/Catawba Avenue in Conrelius. One HOT lane in each direction would be built from Exit 28 to Exit 36/NC 150. Officials say two extra lanes aren’t possible on the northern section because of the narrow causeways over Lake Norman in Cornelius and Davidson.
The project was first discussed in 2010, and is moving along quickly. NCDOT plans to issue a final Request for Proposals for the entire section from Charlotte to Exit 36 in Mooresville by the end of March. The deadline for bids would be July and the DOT hopes to choose the final bidder by August. Construction would begin in Spring 2014.
Widen I-77 wants local officials in the Lake Norman area to take a stand against tolls and to demand that the state come up with money to pay for general purpose lanes.
On Jan. 3, the Cornelius Transportation Advisory board agreed, approving a resolution calling on the Cornelius Town Board to push officials to consider alternatives.
Other local officials at Monday’s meeting appeared sympathetic. Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy told those at the meeting that their presence would send a message that officials should consider alternatives. “You guys just showing up tonight is a major thing,” he told the crowd.
Mr. Gilroy has been trying to get fellow Cornelius commissioners to approve a resolution calling on the Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission, a lobbying group formed by Cornelius, Huntersville, Davidson and Mooresville, to help examine alternate plans for the widening project.
Other towns have been slow to join in. The issue hasn’t come up in a public meeting in Davidson, and Huntersville commissioners only recently have begun discussing it. “We had our first meeting on the HOT lanes issue at 4:30 today,” said Huntersville commissioner Ron Julian.
Mr. Julian called the public-private partnership (P3) “ludicrous” and said he doesn’t support the idea of HOT lanes. “We need general purpose lanes there,” he said.
Elected officials who attended the meeting got the message, including some who were involved in the state and local decisions to move forward with tolls.
Cornelius Mayor Lynette Rinker previously had voted in favor of the HOT lanes proposal at the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, as a representative of Cornelius. But she said that vote was directed by fellow board members, and she accused Widen I-77 of “mischaracterizing her position” on its website.
Mayor Rinker said she was keeping an open mind. “I’m listening. We will take this back to MUMPO,” she said.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Bill Brawley (R-Mecklenburg), the newly appointed chair of the N.C. House Transportation Committee, stood up late in the meeting and acknowledged that he helped push through a bill in the legislature last year that allows for the public-private HOT lanes plan.
“The legislature said we need these lanes now,” Rep. Brawley said. He acknowledged that the toll plan may not be popular, but it’s the only way to get the highway widened now. “I honestly believe if we had to wait for general purpose lanes, I would not be alive,” he added.
Nonetheless, he pledged to discuss Monday’s meeting and citizen concerns with state officials on Tuesday. “I will talk about what we heard tonight when I am in the speaker’s office tomorrow with the new secretary of transportation,” he said.
He said he would like to see the state change the way it allocates road funding, but also noted that when it comes to priorities, I-77 is not the worst road in Mecklenburg County. “I-77 north (of Charlotte) is not as bad as 74,” he said, referring to the main route southeast out of Charlotte.
Louis Mitchell, the NC DOT’s Charlotte region district chief, echoed Mr. Brawley, telling the crowd that MUMPO has not ranked I-77 widening highly in previous years. He said the project is closer to happening now only because it includes managed lanes, or tolls.
Jan. 14, 2013, Widen I-77 presentation at the Cornelius meeting (PDF)
See also the Widen I-77 website
Jan. 4, 2013, the NC DOT’s latest presentation on the HOT lanes project (PDF)