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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.

There is another fight brewing with big implications for transit and toll lanes

 Toll lanes
Steve Harrison
A big decision is coming on whether a private company should build and operate more toll lanes on I-77 in south Charlotte.

Charlotte leaders want neighboring towns and counties to back their vision for a regional transit system.

But instead of successfully courting them, Charlotte is antagonizing them.


The first blow came nearly eight years ago, when Vi Lyles — who was then a City Council member — cast the deciding vote to green-light the privately managed Interstate 77 toll lanes in north Mecklenburg. It was the deciding vote because the city’s power on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization is weighted to count for nearly half of the votes

That decision enraged some residents of Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville.

The second came earlier this year. The Metropolitan Transit Commission, a group of Mecklenburg mayors, requested that Charlotte hire an outside consultant/investigator to look into problems at the Charlotte Area Transit System.

The city said it wasn’t going to do that. Instead, it has asked the federal government to expedite a previously scheduled review. That decision angered some mayors like Davidson’s Rusty Knox, who theorized the entire MTC might need to be reworked or disbanded.

And there is another fight brewing.

It’s about how the votes are counted on CRTPO, the federally required group that helps decide how and when roads are built in three counties — Iredell, Mecklenburg and Union.

Charlotte has 46% of the vote, with more than 20 other governing bodies together all totaling 54%.

The Huntersville town board recently passed a resolution saying that’s not fair. It wants all cities, counties and towns to have an equal vote.

“Charlotte’s motto is it’s our way or the highway,” said Huntersville Commissioner Rob Kidwell. “(If the city doesn’t compromise) it will set us back tremendously on trying to work with Charlotte on any kind of transit.”

In a draft memo, Charlotte City Council member Ed Driggs and two other CRTPO members said the current voting structure is correct. They said Charlotte should have a weighted vote equal to its population in the region, which is actually more than 46%.

“We were unable to identify an alternative to the current weighted vote provision … without introducing unnecessary complexity to our decision-making processes,” they wrote.

Transit and toll lanes

There are two big reasons this fight is important.

The first, as Kidwell mentions, is the dispute risks alienating Charlotte’s neighbors even more. If Charlotte wants to move forward on its $13.5 billion transit plan, it needs buy-in from the Mecklenburg towns and neighboring counties.

The second is about proposed I-77 toll lanes in south Charlotte.

CRTPO in February voted to study having a private company build and manage new toll lanes from uptown to the South Carolina state line. The other option would be for the state to build and manage them, which could mean less expensive tolls for motorists but possibly take longer to build.

There were several no votes to consider privately managed toll lanes, from the representatives of towns Matthews, Pineville, Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Indian Trail.

Driggs, Charlotte’s representative, voted in favor of moving forward with studying the pros and cons of working with a private developer.

A planning organization where Charlotte has less voting power could reverse the decision to study privately managed toll lanes.

“Last time Charlotte voted to give Lake Norman toll lanes,” said former Cornelius Commissioner Kurt Naas, who is leading the movement to revamp CRTPO. “No one wanted that up here.”

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'Two wolves deciding on dinner'

Under state law, transportation planning organizations must approve their governing structure every 10 years. Naas said unless members vote to reduce Charlotte’s power now, they will be stuck with what he called Charlotte-centric decisions for at least the next decade.

“Charlotte says we have the largest population, so we should have the largest vote,” Naas said. “That’s tyranny of the majority. It’s two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.”

He said he has researched 11 other planning organizations in North Carolina, including Raleigh, and none give a city as much of a weighted vote as Charlotte has.

A vote is expected this fall.

Will Charlotte give up some power to build alliances for the future?

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.