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Matthews mayor makes big waves on road issues

The Mayor of Matthews recently made a high-profile stand for more money to build Charlotte roads. In light of his big demands, it's easy to forget the town he's in charge of is only a very small slice of Mecklenburg County's 800,000-person population. In fact, Matthews is small enough that Mayor Lee Myers keeps an exact tally, and the day we met last week he'd just received an update: "26,302 as of this morning," says Myers. "We had two babies born at the hospital in Matthews last night." Technically, those are the only people Mayor Myers answers to. But when it comes to roads, he sees his role as much larger. "I leave my house and take Sardis road, " Mayor Myers says, tracing his commute on a large map sprawled on the conference table of his uptown law office. He says the whole route takes him about 20 minutes. "I leave for work at 5:30 in the morning," he says "There is no traffic." In other words, Myers spends a lot more time complaining about Charlotte's congested roads than he actually does sitting in traffic. "A few times a year, I will have some reason I need to stay in Matthews area or need to travel during a congested time. That's all I need to know to know there's a problem." Armed with that knowledge, and in his typical outspoken fashion, Mayor Myers muscled his way to the front of the auditorium when then vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden visited Charlotte in September. "I asked him that he should not forget the small towns and the cities across this country," said Myers, moments after speaking with Biden. "For example, transit and transportation, we need more funding for our infrastructure. We're not getting that. That was my message to him and I held onto his hand as long as I could and I said "don't forget the small towns and the cities in this country." And what did Biden say to that? "He said he's gonna put the infrastructure back in," said Myers. "But I want to see some action." Which is why Myers went a step further this month and wrote to President-elect Obama on the letterhead of the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization. It's a group responsible for prioritizing road projects in the region and Myers is currently the chairman. In his letter, he asked the President-elect to freeze federal funding for North Carolina highways until an investigation is done of the state's transportation funding procedures. "To determine if the funding is being allocated where the need is," says Myers. "I'm using the Fayetteville project as an example of federal dollars being placed in an area where the need is not as great as is 485." Myers' letter did not sit well with Fayetteville politicians who recently managed to get a freeway loop for their own city prioritized ahead of plans to complete the remaining six miles of I-485. They're calling Myers a whiner. But the Matthews Mayor says I-485 should obviously come first because it handles 13 times as many cars on a daily basis. And he's not alone: "I think he is sharing the frustration that all of us feel here," says Bob Morgan, CEO of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. "With 485, we are six miles to completion and yet there are no plans to begin the construction of that final leg until 2015." Morgan is wary, though of Mayor Myers' approach. North Carolina collects $980 million a year from Washington for road projects - many of which would grind to a halt if the President-elect heeds Myers' request. Ned Curran has a similar concern. He's the chairman of a local transportation advisory Committee of 21. "While I applaud the effort, I certainly would not want to see a prohibition on road money coming to North Carolina," says Curran. "We need all the financing we can get - particularly at a pretty critical time when Washington may be looking at spreading money around." The prospect of a federal stimulus package that would include an infusion of cash for roads is exactly why Myers felt his letter to Obama was timely. He wants to make sure that money goes to the projects that are needed most. And when it comes to finishing I-485, he says he's not just protecting his turf because, after all, the loop is already finished in Matthews. He also says he's had a lot of local officials thank him for writing the letter. "Perhaps I'm the only one who's taken the time and initiative to send a letter, but they've voiced the same complaints." It's a position Myers is used to - and even thrives on - as the son of a former Mecklenburg County Commissioner, and also a self-described Type-A personality who played football at East Mecklenburg High School. "I'm a team player," says Myers. "But by the same token, I was the captain of the defensive team. So I'm used to being the captain and getting people going in the right direction to achieve a common goal." And as with football, the size of your hometown has nothing to do with your ability win. Matthews Mayor Lee Myers doesn't represent most of the drivers on Charlotte's roads, and he doesn't even feel their pain with his traffic-free commute each day. But that hasn't kept him from making a lot of noise on their behalf.