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In NC Senate Race, Tarte and Marcus Blast Toll Lanes. But Could They Have Done More?

Steve Harrison / WFAE
The I-77 toll lanes are a critical issue in the N.C. Senate race between Republican Jeff Tarte and Democrat Natasha Marcus

In the race for state Senate District 41, Republican incumbent Jeff Tarte and Democrat Natasha Marcus are trying to out-do each other’s opposition to the Interstate 77 toll lanes.

But one longtime toll-lane opponent said both candidates could have done more to try and stop the project.

Four years ago, before the state signed the construction contract with the Spanish firm Cintra, Tarte wrote an op-ed for the Charlotte Observer. He wrote that parts of the contract concerned him, but did not dissuade him from the project.

“I am still in favor of tolling I-77 since this option solves the problem sooner rather than later and will generate additional dollars for local road projects," he wrote.

Cornelius Commissioner Kurt Naas, a leader of the anti-toll lane group Widen I-77, said Tarte was one of several elected officials who supported the project even when opposition was growing.

“During the early period Jeff often repeated what the party line was, which is basically we don’t have money to widen I-77 through Lake Norman — this is the only way we are going to do it," Naas said. "It’s tolls or nothing for 20 years.”

Tarte said his 2014 position on the toll lanes was the right one at the time.

Credit NCGA
Jeff Tarte

"If it became the reality that there was no money and we weren’t getting any widening of any kind, doing nothing is absolutely not an option to [Interstate] 77,” Tarte said.

Four years ago, the North Carolina Department of Transportation would have struggled to find $600 million to widen 26 miles of I-77. But opponents said they didn’t want — or need — such an expensive and expansive widening. They said a five-mile widening project through Huntersville and Cornelius would have solved much of the congestion.

In the last two years, however, Tarte has been a vocal opponent of the toll lanes, introducing legislation in the General Assembly to cancel the contract. He passed a bill in the Senate that would have used local transportation dollars to buy out the contract, but it went nowhere in the House.

"If we are talking in terms of effectiveness, it hasn't been high," Naas said. "Probably a D."

Marcus, who has never held elected office, said Tarte should have done more, especially because he’s a member of a Republican supermajority that controls the General Assembly.

“If you are a private citizen and the most you can do is stand on the bridge and let your voice be heard, that’s fine," Marcus said. "But when you are the legislator and you are in charge of fixing this, it’s not OK to just stand on the bridge and just posture for the television cameras as if you are against them. He needs to be in Raleigh getting together a coalition of party members who have a supermajority in the House and the Senate, and can pass whatever bill they want to pass.”

Marcus, from Davidson, has not held elected office. She lost a 2014 race to Republican John Bradford for a state House seat.

During that race, Marcus opposed the toll lanes that Bradford supported.

Credit Natasha Marcus
Natasha Marcus

“We should not reward those who lock us into an unfair, 50-year toll road contract," Marcus said in an advertisement from that race.

But Naas said Marcus didn’t help his group after the election. Many of the grass-roots anti-toll lane opponents are conservative, and Naas said Marcus could have helped the group by bringing progressives to the cause.

If Tarte gets a D, Naas said Marcus gets a failing grade.

“She has been nowhere," Naas said.

Marcus said that's not fair.

She said she has worked to elect Democrats who oppose the toll contract, like Democratic state House member Chaz Beasley.

"I have spoken out against this contract and educated others," she said.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, a toll lane opponent, is one of the few Democratic officials to vocally oppose the toll lanes for years. She said there’s a reason Democratic elected officials and activists stayed away from Naas’s group.

“I heard comments like, 'This is a Republican problem, this is a Republican mess,'" Cotham said. "They need to clean it up.”

The race for District 41 is considered one of the Democrats best chances to flip a seat held by Republicans.

Tarte is the incumbent, but he’s never won this newly drawn district. It still includes Lake Norman, but now stretches to Steele Creek, which tends to vote Democratic.

In a sign that the Democrats think they can win, Barack Obama endorsed Marcus this week.

State Democrats are now trying to nationalize the race against Tarte and other Republicans in toss-up districts.

The State Democratic Party posted an online ad last week that highlighted Tarte’s support for Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, citing a letter Tarte and other Republicans signed before the sexual assault allegations.

Tarte said he’s waiting on the result of the FBI investigation, and will accept what the Senate decides.

As for the toll lanes, they are supposed to open by the end of the year. 

Tarte said the Governor must act first to cancel the contract. Marcus said the legislature must make the next move.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.