Regional leaders Wednesday night reaffirmed a policy of using toll lanes to expand highways in the Charlotte area. The vote by the Charlotte Regional transportation Planning Organization effectively clears the way for tolls on I-77, and for work on expansion of the highway to begin in earnest.
The vote to uphold the NCDOT’s toll-lane strategy came after nearly two hours of public comments and debate at the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, or CRTPO. That’s a group of local leaders that decides road and transit strategy for the Charlotte area.
When chair James Taylor of Matthews called for a vote, 14 of the 21 members present raised their hands in support. Seven, including nearly all the representatives from the Lake Norman area, were opposed. Charlotte controls nearly half the votes on the body, making the weighted vote 50-12. (See below.)
Opponents have been pressuring the DOT to reconsider the first toll lane project in the area, a 50-year contract with a private company to build and operate toll lanes on 26 miles of I-77 from Charlotte to Mooresville.
In November, lawmakers from the Lake Norman area demanded that Governor Pat McCrory cancel the contract. The governor responded by asking CRTPO to give a new thumbs-up or thumbs-down. That brought about Wednesday’s vote - and a victory for the governor and the DOT.
State Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson said he expected continued debate, but welcomed the vote. "I am confident that there are people for whom no solution short of cancellation would satisfy them as being the right outcome," Tennyson said. "No, I don’t think it’ll be the end of the debate, but I am grateful that CRTPO has at least removed some of the uncertainty under which we were operating."
The DOT’s contractor, I-77 Mobility Partners, started work in November. It’s a subsidiary of Spanish construction giant Cintra. State plans also call for using toll lanes to widen US 74, I-485 in south Charlotte, and I-77 from Charlotte to the South Carolina line.
A half-dozen speakers at the start of the meeting - including employees of contractors working on the project - said toll lanes would help the region, creating jobs and providing reliable transportation. One Chamber of Commerce leader from Dallas-Fort Worth, in Texas, said toll lanes have helped his area.
But another dozen people criticized the deal, raising questions about Cintra, calling toll lanes “a disaster,” and demanding conventional lanes on I-77. Among them was County Commissioner Jim Puckett, whose District 1 includes north Mecklenburg. Afterward, he said:
"There are lots of ramifications that will come out of what I think is an extraordinarily self-centered, Charlotte-centric plan that is turning their backs on the rest of the community. And I think they’re going to have to start to react to that."
In a statement after the vote, contractor I-77 Mobility Partners said the toll lanes would give drivers - including those in carpools or who choose to pay the tolls - more reliable travel times at rush hour. Work on the new lanes began in November, and they could open in 2018.
VOTE AT CRTPO
Here's how the votes lined up on Wednesday's motion to support the region's toll lane strategy:
Supporting the resolution were:
- Charlotte (controls 31 weighted votes, or 46 percent of the total)
- Indian Trail (2)
- Matthews (2)
- Mineral Springs (1)
- Mint Hill (2)
- Monroe (2)
- Mooresville (2)
- Stallings (1)
- Statesville (2)
- Troutman (1)
- Waxhaw (1)
- Weddington (1)
- NCDOT – Division 10 Board Member
- NCDOT – Division 12 Board Member
Voting against the motion were:
- Cornelius (2)
- Davidson (1)
- Huntersville (2)
- Iredell County (2)
- Mecklenburg County (2)
- Pineville (1)
- Union County (2)