I-77 Tolls Become A Political Issue In 2016 Races

Dec 27, 2015

Candidate filing is over and the fields are set for the 2016 elections in North Carolina. For some voters north of Charlotte, one issue rises above all others: the NCDOT’s plan for toll lanes on I-77. How will it affect results? WFAE’s David Boraks talked to voters and experts.  

I-77 from Charlotte north to the Lake Norman area is badly congested at rush hour. Last year, the NCDOT contracted with a private company named Cintra to widen the road with toll lanes. But many residents hate the idea, and they’re taking it out at the ballot box.
 
In November, Huntersville voters unseated longtime Mayor Jill Swain and two town commissioners, electing candidates opposed the toll lane project. Now, the issue is driving voters as they decide on candidates from governor to state legislator in the March primary and the November general election.
 
Michael Bitzer is a political science professor at Catawba College.  “Any time you give the voters an issue that angers them, that’s going to turn into energy, that’s going to turn into mobilization,” Bitzer said.
 
Toll opponents blame Governor Pat McCrory for the DOT’s toll lanes plan. Former state representative and toll lane opponent Robert Brawley of Mooresville will challenge the governor in the primary. Republican incumbents in four south Iredell and north Mecklenburg districts are facing primary or general election challenges as well.
 
The anti-toll campaign draws support across party lines, from conservative Republicans to Democrats. While many of the area’s statehouse districts have big GOP majorities, anti-toll Republicans and Democrats are hoping for upsets.
 
State Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius and state Rep. Charles Jeter are among the targets.  At an I-77 toll “summit” in Cornelius last month, voter Neal Howes of Huntersville blamed the two lawmakers for the toll-lane project.     
 
"The current leaders right now, they should’ve stopped it two years ago. That’s the reason I don’t plan to vote for Jeff Tarte. I don’t plan to vote for Charles Jeter. They should’ve stopped it then and they didn’t. Our quality of life is bad," Howes said.
 
Tarte and Jeter are now strongly against tolls. They organized that Cornelius summit with NCDOT officials, and they’ve demanded Governor McCrory cancel the project.
 
Larry Shaheen is a political consultant who works for Tarte and other local officials. He says Tarte, Jeter and other lawmakers are trying to forge a compromise, but hitting a political wall.
 
"They’re the only ones trying to communicate, and no one’s listening. And the problem is the Lake Norman community, whether or not they’re right, we’re not talking about whether they’re right, the Lake Norman community does not want this," Shaheen said.
 
County commissioner Pat Cotham says the anti-toll vote in Huntersville in November spurred Tarte, Jeter and their colleagues to action. She thinks there's hope for halting the project.
 
"Anything can be stopped. You just have to have the will. I think the recent election in Huntersville, and people who are supporting the governor lost their election, has kind of been a wakeup call for some of our legislators who may not have been listening to the people as much," Cotham said.

For now, I-77 toll lanes remain mostly a local issue in Lake Norman. There’s no similar anti-toll movement among Charlotte voters, even though the NCDOT also plans toll lanes on US 74, I-77 and I-485.

So just how much influence will the anti-toll vote have in 2016?  

"Certainly all the anger and energy is pointed toward Governor McCrory," says Bitzer. "But there could be down-ballot ramifications to this, and the likely targets are going to be both the state senator and the state representative for those areas."
 
As for the governor's race, Bitzer says: “It could turn out in one of two ways: Either, traditionally, Republicans vote Republican, but these folks potentially could turn toward the Democrat. Or the Republican voters could just stay at home, and that could be just as big of an impact come November."
 
Shaheen agrees that voter unhappiness could help Democratic governor candidate Roy Cooper win more votes in the Lake Norman area. And it will make things uncomfortable for statehouse incumbents.  
 
"Think about it this way - the goal of a public official is to serve his constituency," Shaheen says. "I always view a primary challenge as kind of a statement on the fact that you haven’t served your constituency. You haven’t been able to do what your constituents have asked for you to do."
 
Gov. McCrory has asked local leaders to vote again on toll lanes next month a meeting of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization. Whether that changes the picture will depend on the vote of Charlotte's representative, council member Vi Lyles, who has supported toll lanes repeatedly in the past.  

Party primaries in North Carolina are March 15.