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Chamber chair on tolls: ‘It’s not a done deal until we lay down’


Nov. 12By Dave Yochum. A public relations executive with I-77 Mobility Partners, the controversial public-private partnership that plans to build toll lanes between Charlotte and Cornelius, today announced that construction will begin in four days.



Jean Leier, director of corporate affairs at I-77 Mobility, said “I-77 Mobility Partners is excited to begin construction.”

The $650 million toll plan has been fraught with dissent, public demonstrations on the Exit 28 bridge in Cornelius, an anti-toll parade on a rainy Sunday and what amounted to a vote of no confidence in the plan Nov. 3, when officials like Mayor Jill Swain and long-time commissioner Sarah McAulay were ousted in Huntersville.

Because they didn’t just lose—they were trounced—the pro-toll faction in Huntersville inadvertently provided solid political footing to the North Mecklenburg legislative delegation which is trying to fight the toll plan by allowing Gov. Pat McCrory to “walk it back” and start over.

In light of the sudden announcement of a ground-breaking, one high-ranking North Mecklenburg politico called NCDOT a “rogue” agency.

Indeed, the North Meck legislators are holding a press conference at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce Friday to outline their plan to fight the tolls. The chamber has become a focal point of business opposition to the toll plan which, many observers say, will, in toto, increase congestion on I-77, not relieve it.

Leier’s announcement that construction starts in three days struck a sour note in the business community.

Mike Russell


Mike Russell, chairman of the Lake Norman Chamber, said: “The announcement of the ceremonial groundbreaking of the I-77 toll road project will do nothing to slow the building momentum enjoyed by those opposed to the tolls coming out of last week’s election. It’s not a done deal until we lay down.”

 Russell, and others, fear the toll plan will worsen congestion by concentrating slow-moving tractor-trailers in the two existing general purpose lanes. The toll design, too, appears to prevent on-off access at Exit 28, deemed Lake Norman’s “Main Street” by the Chamber of Commerce.

Kurt Naas, the founder of the WidenI-77 anti-toll movement said this: “I am not aware of any bulldozers rolling off of flatbeds. The only bulldozing happening right now is Cintra trying to influence the North Carolina legislature with this announcement.” Naas is a Concord business owner and a Cornelius resident.



Perhaps underlining the rogue-like behavior of the NCDOT, Lake Norman business leaders and elected officials were planning to hold a high-level “summit” on Tuesdayor Wednesday of next week to determine how best to stop the tolls and find another way to finance the widening of I-77.

The date and location had not been set as of 3 pm today. It appears Gov. McCrory may attend. The question is whether a summit that is still in the planning stages would provide enough political cover for the governor to red flag the Cintra deal.

 Huntersville financial advisor and Mayor-elect John Aneralla said Leier’s timing “is just too coincidental when you look at the fact that the summit to include, potentially the governor, is supposed to occur as early as Tuesday of next week. It smells like somebody is trying to do a PR event to get ahead of the momentum that is occuring to cancel the contract.”

The NCDOT has a history of behavior that would be unacceptable even in a bad marriage.

When the public hue and cry reached a crescendo in May, the NCDOT pushed the financial close a week ahead of plan.

 But important legislators like NC Rep. Bill Brawley of Charlotte are still on board with the plan. He is senior chair of the House Finance Committee, which, of course, holds the purse strings to literally hundreds of projects in and around the state.

He told Business Today earlier this week that North Meck officials at one time gave thumbs up to tolls, and there is virtually no going back at this point.



The toll plan changed over time, and more and more people decided the public-private partnership with a Spanish company was a bad deal. Among the key events was the I-77 “Emergency Call to Action” organized by John “Mac” McAlpine, an employee at Michael Waltrip Raceworld in Cornelius. A virtual unknown in the business community, McAlpine’s meeting was packed with top bankers, Realtors, financial advisors and small business owners.

And the movement that Naas started three years ago, gained speed.

Now it’s looking more and more like the powers that be in Lake Norman will do anything they can to get out of the toll plan, short of paying hundreds of millions of dollars in contract cancellation fees.

Naas’ WidenI-77 organization is mounting a serious legal challenge to the contract; a hearing date is set for Jan. 8.

Interestingly, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, Chamber CEO Bill Russell, Mike Russell, McAlpine, Naas, race team executive Greg Wallace and former Chamber Chair John Hettwer are meeting on a weekly basis in what amounts to a chamber war room to fight the tolls on a variety of fronts.

The summit is big, but the lawsuit may be bigger.

Skeptics say there is no shortage of political expediency around opposition to the tolls in light of last week’s election results.

Meanwhile, Leier’s press release said construction of the I-77 toll lanes will occur in the median “with minimal disruption to commuters.”

“Occasional lane shifts and closures will only take place in overnight hours. However, with day and night activity in the work zone, motorists should drive safely and stay alert at all times,” the press release said.

It also said the project will “bring reduced traffic congestion, spur economic development through the hiring of 50-100 local firms.”

The press release did not name any firms.

“We are committed to regular and ongoing communications with residents, commuters and businesses in the area to ensure a successful and safe project,” Leier’s press release said.




The press release was not distributed to Business Today or Cornelius Today. Cornelius Mayor Chuck Travis, however, sent it to North Meck media outlets, including the Huntersville Herald and the Lake Norman Citizen as well as Business Today.

The press release states:

“Construction will start in the area south of Exit 23 Gilead Road to north of Exit 28 Catawba Avenue. Traffic control measures include restriping the roadway and shifting the lanes, installing a concrete safety barrier near the median and placing road markers along the project area. Initial construction work involves clearing the land and grading of the area. In 2016 drivers will see construction work along most of the 26-mile project.

“Once the project is complete, dedicated express lanes will run adjacent to the existing general purpose lanes. The number of general purpose lanes will remain the same as today. Drivers will have the choice of using the express lanes to avoid travel delays, the general purpose lanes or a combination of both. Carpoolers with three or more occupants (including the driver) may use the express lanes for free. The full 26-mile project is slated to be completed in 2018.

“We believe this project will provide a benefit to I-77 users as an improvement to their daily quality of life,” Leier added. “With less congestion, drivers will have more time with their families or at the office, be able to make more service calls, and have greater access to goods and services.”

Leier’s press release encouraged area residents to sign up for email updates by visiting I-77 Mobility Partners’ website: http://www.i77express.com/newsroom/newsletter-e-alerts/

The press release also directs people to visit I-77 Mobility’s Facebook page, I-77 Express Lanes.

As of 4 pm today it had 60 members.

The Facebook page that literally drove the anti-toll movement, Exit 28 Ridiculousness, has 4,650 members.

This is from the I-77 Mobility Facebook page:

“The I-77 Express Lanes is part of each of the five communities in the corridor and represents the culmination of decades of commitment, time and vision by public and elected/appointed officials in transforming their vision into a reality. The community and its leadership can take substantial ownership in the success of the project. The express lanes will provide tangible benefits to drivers and communities along the corridor when the project opens in 2018.”

Amanda Dudley, the chief administrator for the Exit 28 Ridiculousness Facebook page, decried I-77 Mobility’s statements. “Saying that toll lanes will ease congestion is a bald-faced lie. The fact that you would even entertain the idea of entering into a 50 year, $650 million contract with a company that has a proven record of failure and bankruptcy is astounding. The general public was told that there was not any money and the tolls were the only solution.”

North Carolina had a $400 million budget surplus for this fiscal year.