Months of debate among Cornelius commissioners over the NC Department of Transportation’s plan to widen I-77 north of Charlotte by adding toll lanes ended dramatically and quickly Monday night in a 3-2 vote in favor of the concept. With the board still one member short because of a vacancy, it was up to Mayor Lynette Rinker to break a 2-2 tie on the issue.
The vote came two weeks before a key meeting of the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO). MUMPO is expected to vote May 22 whether to add the I-77 widening plan, including High Occupancy Toll Lanes, or HOT lanes, to its 2035 Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) and 2012-2018 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).
The DOT has proposed a half-billion-dollar project to improve traffic clogged I-77 between I-277 in Charlotte and Exit 36 in Mooresville. Supporters, including state legislative leaders and many local elected officials, say with road money in short supply, the project including optional toll lanes is the best way to get I-77 widened soon.
Opponents, including a Cornelius-based citizens group called Widen I-77, say the HOT lanes project is too expensive, won’t relieve congestion, and would lock the state into a contract with a private toll road operator for too long. They want the state to pay for more “general purpose” lanes, without tolls, to help ease congestion.
Commissioner Chuck Travis, who supports the DOT’s plan, forced a vote by offering a motion late in Monday’s meeting. The motion specifically directs Travis, as the town’s representative to MUMPO, to vote in favor of the HOT lanes plan on May 22.
“It (HOT lanes) is a funding mechanism that can guarantee reliability,” Travis explained. “It can happen now.” He told fellow commissioners that it was important to take a stand in support of the project now, rather than waiting two more weeks.
“I do not want to squander our opportunity by sending a mixed signal,” he said.
Toll opponent and commissioner Dave Gilroy tried to derail Travis’s motion by offering a competing proposal. It would have delayed a final Cornelius board vote until May 20. Gilroy wanted the town to ask MUMPO to quickly “score” the I-77 project using new criteria being developed that he and other toll opponents think would rank general purpose lanes more favorably than in the past.
But that substitute motion failed 2-3. Gilroy and Commissioner Jeff Hare voted in favor of the motion, while Travis and Commissioner John Bradford voted against it. That forced Rinker to break the tie. After she cast the vote that rejected Gilroy’s motion, the board voted the other way, 3-2, in favor of Travis’s original motion. This time, Gilroy and Hare were opposed.
After the vote, Rinker acknowledged that tolls aren’t an ideal solution, but said it’s the only good option right now. Perhaps wishfully, she added: “We’ve taken a vote, and this matter is behind us now.”
A disappointed Gilroy said afterward: “I just think that is incredibly close-minded thinking.”
OPPONENTS: SHRINK PROJECT, DITCH TOLLS
During its pre-meeting work session earlier in the evening, the board had heard a presentation from toll opponent Kurt Naas of Cornelius, the founder of Widen I-77 and a member of the town’s Transportation Advisory Board. Naas tried to convince commissioners that there was new information – new ranking criteria for road projects and possibly new rules for how federal dollars can be spent – that could give a conventional widening project a better shot at funding.
But Travis, Rinker and Bradford were not swayed, ultimately voting to support the HOT lanes project.
“We all acknowledge that nobody wants a toll,” Travis said. But he noted that traffic on the interstate is a “catastrophe” and commuters need a solution sooner rather than later.
Gilroy’s motion asked MUMPO to use a recently approved new ranking system to “score” an I-77 widening project without tolls. That would help local officials gauge whether there was hope for a conventional (non-toll) widening project.
But, Travis said, “This new ranking system is not even in place,” and doing new rankings for 200 or more road projects couldn’t be done fast enough.
Rinker said there was too much uncertainty around the potential alternatives toll opponents were pushing. She noted that I-77 traffic is the No. 1 concern she hears from Cornelius taxpayers.
“For me it really comes down to a wish and a hope and a maybe and an if (among opponents), or a real solution,” she said. “It (the HOT lanes project) isn’t the solution that I would’ve chosen and it isn’t a solution I would’ve liked. But moving forward, I think we will come to find that it was the right decision.”
RELATED LINKS AND COVERAGE
NC DOT’s project discussion page, fix77now.blogspot.com – the site has documents and other factual information about the project
MUMPO.org I-77 information page.