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The articles from Inside Politics With Steve Harrison appear first in his weekly newsletter, which takes a deeper look at local politics, including the latest news on the Charlotte City Council, what's happening with Mecklenburg County's Board of Commissioners, the North Carolina General Assembly and much more.

A Charlotte anti-toll lane voice has been sidelined. How much does that matter?

Toll lanes on I-77
David Boraks
/
WFAE
Toll lanes on Interstate 77 in Cornelius.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham is one of the most vocal critics of the Interstate 77 express toll lanes in north Mecklenburg County.

Cotham’s car has a bumper sticker: “Stop I-77 Tolls. Widen I-77.”

Her opposition didn’t stop the toll lanes from being built, but her populism was one reason she finished as the top vote-getting in five of the past six Commission elections.

Cotham had been the county’s representative on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which is debating whether to partner with a private company to build more express toll lanes, this time on I-77 from uptown to the South Carolina state line.

Pat Cotham's bumper sticker
Pat Cotham
/
Submitted
Pat Cotham's bumper sticker.

The Spanish company Cintra, which built and manages the I-77 north toll lanes, put in an unsolicited proposal with the North Carolina Department of Transportation last year to do the same on I-77 south.

But at the start of this year, Commission chair George Dunlap took her off CRTPO. He replaced her with Commissioner Leigh Altman, who is backing the state’s plans to consider another public-private partnership.

From a vote-counting perspective, swapping Cotham for Altman doesn’t matter much.

CRTPO has 26 members.


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The city of Charlotte’s representative is the most important, with a weighted vote that equals 45% of the total. Mecklenburg County’s vote is only worth 3%.

So while Cotham’s vote couldn’t sway the outcome, she had been using her bully pulpit as a member to trash the idea of partnering with a private firm to build more toll lanes.

“I am 100% opposed to this,” Cotham said last summer when she was a CRTPO member. “And I also was heavily involved with the debacle of I-77 in the north, and I'm still not over it. I'm still grieving.”

The NCDOT has said that if it builds the toll lanes on its own, they might not open until the 2040s. It said a private company could build them sooner, in the 2030s.

Toll lanes on I-77
Steve Harrison
/
WFAE
Toll lanes on Interstate 77.

The downside, however, is that motorists would likely pay higher tolls if a private company were in charge. Though it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, Cintra’s toll rates are higher on a per-mile basis than state-managed toll highways in Union County and Raleigh.

The company’s toll revenue on I-77 in north Mecklenburg was $16.1 million in the third quarter of 2022; it was only $10.1 million in the third quarter of 2021.

Charlotte City Council member Ed Driggs is the city’s representative on CRTPO and the most important member.

He is concerned about another public-private partnership, specifically with Cintra.

He said this week he doesn’t want CRTPO to approve a proposal for the DOT to specifically study Cintra’s proposal, saying it might appear that the company “has a lock on this business.”

But Driggs appears willing to advance a plan for the DOT to study the pros and cons of a public-private partnership overall. CRTPO is scheduled to vote on that next month.

A yes vote would make privately managed toll lanes closer to reality.

Cotham said she’s not done.

She said she plans to sign up during a public comment period at CRTPO meetings to speak against the project.

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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.