Citing First Amendment rights, I-77 toll lane opponents have replanted a series of controversial campaign signs around Cornelius and Huntersville urging voters to fire incumbent commissioners in the two towns. Although TollFreeNC/Widen I-77 had announced Friday it was removing the signs amid criticism, a spokeswoman said Sunday it had decided to bring back the signs.
Speaking for Widen I-77, Vallee Bubak of Davidson said, “Many citizens and business owners were disappointed the signs were removed since they felt the signs were helpful for alerting the public about the I-77 toll issue and identifying the Town Commissioners responsible for approving the tolls.”
“Citizens against tolling I-77 have chosen to exercise their First Amendment right to post the signs,” she said in an email.
The small black signs attacking incumbent commissioners John Bradford of Cornelius and Sarah McAulay of Huntersville were visible again Sunday on major thoroughfares and intersections in the two towns. They say “Fire Bradford – He Supports Tolls” and “Fire McAulay – She Supports Tolls.”
Gone on Sunday were another series of signs endorsing town board candidates in the towns whom the group endorsed for their anti-toll stands. Some of those candidates last week repudiated the signs, saying they didn’t support negative campaigning. At least one commissioner candidate, Del Arrendale of Cornelius, had publicly asked that his name be removed from the list and endorsed Bradford.
Incumbent Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy said he thinks people have “overreacted” to the negative campaign signs. “This is the most precious and protected kind of free speech in our democracy,” Gilroy said in an email. “John and Sarah are my friends, and we undoubtedly agree on more issues than we disagree on, but I do think there has been an overreaction to these yard signs.”
He called the First Amendment the “cornerstone of our democracy” and said he would have no grounds to complain if citizens who disagree with his anti-toll position were to post “Fire Gilroy” signs. (See Gilroy’s full comment below.)
OPPOSING ‘HOT’ LANES
What Bradford and McAaulay and other local elected officials have supported is the N.C. Department of Transportation’s proposed $550 million project to widen the congested stretch of I-77 north of Charlotte, between the Brookshire Freeway (Exit 11) to N.C. 150 (Exit 36) in Iredell County, using High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lanes.
The project has the backing of state and regional transportation officials, as well as local representatives at the statehouse, including state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Cornelius) and state Sen. Jeff Tarte (R-Cornelius). The Meckelnburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO), a group of local elected officials that sets transportation priorities, has voted to move the project forward as well.
But TollFreeNC and Widen I-77 want officials to reconsider the idea.
The work would add two toll lanes between Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius, and one lane from Exit 28 north to Exit 36. It also calls for a variety of bridge and interchange improvements along the 26 miles.
Under the DOT’s plan, toll lanes would be optional not be required and commuters would have a choice whether to pay to use the new lanes. The number of regular lanes on I-77 won’t be reduced by the construction.
The DOT and its consultants say HOT lanes would guarantee a reliable travel time to and from Charlotte even at peak traffic hours. Cars with at least three passengers as well as motorcycles, and buses could use the lanes free. Other drivers would be able to use the lanes for a fee, which would vary according to how crowded the HOT lanes are.
State and federal funding would pay about $170 million of the cost, with the rest coming from private investors. The DOT hopes to sign a 50-year contract with a private company to build and operate the lanes. The project has won the backing of local officials in the Charlotte area, who say it would help the project qualify for funding years earlier than originally scheduled under current road-project rankings.
According to the NCDOT, construction could begin in late 2014, with completion in 2017.
Bubak said she has met voters in Davidson and Cornelius who do not know about the DOT’s plans. “Building tolls on I-77 will likely be the single most critical decision by our towns that will impact citizens for decades,” she said.
WHO IS TOLLFREENC/WIDEN I-77?
TollFreeNC is a state-registered political action committee based in Cornelius and is an offshoot of the group Widen I-77, which has organized meetings and protests over the HOT lanes project. Toll
Vallee Bubak, of Davidson, and Kurt Naas of Cornelius, are frequent spokespeople. Its organizing documents list Phyllis Wilson of Cornelius as treasurer.
See more about HOT lanes on the NCDOT’s I-77 project page
See previous coverage of HOT Lanes on CorneliusNews.net.