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Charlotte Area

Charlotte City Council Backs I-77 Toll Project

It was a crucial vote about one of the region’s most congested roadways. The Charlotte City Council voted twice Monday night to support toll lanes around the region. And specifically the project on I-77 North now under construction. That vote was 7 to 4. This despite many council members accusing State officials of issuing financial threats if they didn’t approve the project.

If you haven’t followed the drama surrounding the I-77 project, here’s the gist.

Cintra, a Spanish construction company, was the only bidder on a plan to build optional toll lanes on I-77 from exit 11 in Charlotte to exit 36 in Mooresville. The company will pay for most of the cost of the construction. In return they’ll collect tolls on the road for the next 50 years.

Supporters say this plan, they prefer the term managed lanes, is the best way to decrease traffic on the interstate. Opponents balk at the concept and the contract for the project.

Credit NCDOT
North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Nick Tennyson.

The grassroots campaign has gained political clout, enough that Nick Tennyson, North Carolina’s Secretary of Transportation told the council the Cintra contract could use some revisions. "I don’t think anybody is saying that we have a contract that necessarily doesn’t need additional work," said Tennyson, adding "We certainly have the possibility of continuing to work with our partners and I would anticipate we would do that."

Construction on the tolls lanes along I-77 North began last month. So Councilman John Autry asked Tennyson, "What leverage does the state of North Caroina have to compel Cintra to come back to the deal?" "I think that we’re in a business deal," Tennyson answered, "We have the relationship, we have the ability to negotiate and we have a partner that is interested in a successful project that will candidly lead to other projects." Paid for by public and private money, P3 for short. This includes another proposed toll lane project in Charlotte said Tennyson. "It seems to me the I-77 project south of Charlotte would end up being a P3 project." Which would mean these tolls lanes could stretch from Mooresville to the South Carolina border.

Tennyson was speaking at the council’s dinner meeting held before its open session, where he had the council all to himself. When the body moved to the main chamber, the tone on these project changed significantly. "We’re not asking, we’re begging you. We’re begging you for help," pleaded John Hettwer  with the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce who wants to kill the I-77 North toll lane project. He was the first of more than 40 speakers last night. All but five were against the project.

Some, like William Rakantansky, were angry that Governor Pat McCrory won't stop the contract on his own and that he pushed the issue on the Charlotte city council in a letter sent last month. Rakantansky was also angry with a non-compete clause dictating no new free lanes on the roadway for the next 50 years unless the state pays Cintra for lost toll revenue. "Why is the governor insisting on deliberately keeping these existing free lanes in operational failure for 50 years?" he asked the crowd and the council.

Rakantansky is from Cornelius, one of the towns in north Mecklenburg and south Iredell Counties where resistance to the project is high. Mark Gibbons a newly elected member of the Huntersville town council also spoke against the tolls. He brought up projects important to Charlotte which were supported by towns in North Mecklenburg county including light rail and the streetcar. "None of these have contributed much to the North Meck economy but we voted with you," at the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, or CRTPO which approves these projects. Now, he said, it was time for Charlotte to vote with North Meck in cancelling one.

And so it went for more than two hours. With residents of Charlotte joining the mix as did state legislators, Mecklenburg county commissioners and Bob Morgan of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. He was one of the few speakers to support the project.

Credit Tom Bullock / WFAE
15 year old Julia Carr

But it was 15 year old Julia Carr who got one of the few laughs of the night. "No offense to anyone in this room," she began,"and not to set up anyone’s midlife crisis here but by the time this 50 year contract ends, you all will be dead."

Throughout this prolonged fight over tolls on I-77 the North Carolina Department of Transportation has said cancelling the project would cost between $80 and $300 million. And that the cities who voted it down would be stuck with the tab. Councilman Al Austin wasn't buying it or the toll project. "I haven’t seen this misinformation, half-truths, threats and bullying since the last season of Scandal." For Austin there was just one thing to do,"I think we need to put it in a box, put a bow on it and send it back to the governor’s office." But he was in the minority, joined by Council members Claire Fallon, Kenny Smith and Lawana Mayfield in voting against the tolls.

Those voting for the measure said while they do not like the contract they didn’t want the city to be stuck paying a large portion of that cancelation fee.

All this means next week, when the CRTPO meets to again vote on the project, Charlotte will vote for it. And since Charlotte controls nearly half the voting power of the group it is likely to pass.

And it leaves the opposition looking for their next option in the fight.