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Cornelius News

I-77 Business Plan organizers create roadmap for anti-toll voters


Oct. 30By Dave Yochum. Only one candidate for mayor in all of Lake Norman—John Aneralla in Huntersville—has responded to an election survey organized by the I-77 Business Plan, a group of key business people who meet and strategize each week on how to cancel the 50-year contract with Cintra.



“As a candidate for NC State Senate in 2010, I came out against the I­77 toll lane project. I felt it was unfair to toll a portion of a highway, tie the project to improving roads in Charlotte, that the managed toll lanes will do little to nothing to relieve congestion on I-­77 for North Meck residents and once again North Mecklenburg was getting the short end of the stick when it comes to road money,” Aneralla said.

The first question asked on the survey of 41 local candidates was this: What is your position on the I­ 77 Toll Lanes project and why? For a full list of survey responses, click here.



Aneralla’s opponent, incumbent Jill Swain, did not respond to the survey, nor did the mayors of Cornelius and Davidson, both of whom are running unopposed.

But in the town commission races in both Cornelius and Davidson, all the candidates responded.

Apparently only one commission candidate—Rodney Graham in Davidson—seemed to be in favor of the tolls, saying: “In an ideal world we would be able to widen I-77 with general purpose lanes, with the ability to convert those lanes to managed lanes at a later point. My research has led me to the conclusion that in a growing region, ‘free’ lanes inevitably become congested again.”



He was in the minority, of course, with all the other candidates in Cornelius and Davidson coming out clearly against the $650 million toll plan which comes with a 50-year contract.

In Huntersville, it’s a mixed bag. Pro-toll incumbent Sarah  McAulay did not respond, nor did incumbent Melinda Bales and Jeff Neely, who are also pro-toll.

Huntersville commission candidate Mark Gibbons was totally straight-forward: “I am adamantly opposed to the HOT lane project!” And Charles Guignard said words “cannot express how vehemently opposed” to the I-77 toll lanes project he is. Huntersville incumbent Danny Phillips said he “will do everything in my power to stop this,” including having the town itself join the suit against the NCDOT-Cintra toll plan.



But, to a man, the six candidates in Cornelius are opposed, with newcomer Denis Bilodeau stating that the current plan “does not address our issue with congestion but rather creates congestion in General Purpose lanes.”  Incumbents Jim Duke, Thurman Ross, Woody Washam and Dave Gilroy also oppose the toll lanes.

Washam, who is Cornelius’ mayor pro tem, said he is “committed to doing everything I can to try to stop the I-77 toll/managed lane project” and promote general purpose lanes.  Gilroy cast his response in Orwellian terms: “The plan makes no sense on many levels and will lead to an unmitigated disaster for our region – economically (detrimental to businesses of all sizes and a major impairment to economic development), socially (horribly unfair to lower income level families), and spiritually (will tear our community apart and frustrate, even torture, our citizens on a daily basis as they try to move through our region).”

At the same time, the Cintra/NCDOT plan limits egress and ingress points.  Dr. Michael Miltich, who ran for the town board in 2013 stating that he was against the tolls, responded by saying they are “guaranteed to maintain congestion.”

Miltich, who is again a candidate this year, said egress merge points will add to congestion. “They require cooperation between toll users and the users of the congested GP lanes—a dubious assumption.”

The survey was organized by Greg Wallace, vice president of brand management and corporate communications at Rusty Wallace Racing. He is one of a group of business leaders who meet at the Lake Norman Chamber on a weekly basis to fight the toll plan.

The other members are Denis Bilodeau, president of Aquesta Insurance Services; John Hettwer, a former chamber chair who is president of Payroll Plus; Mac McAlpine, director of electronic engineering at Michael Waltrip Raceworld and the original organizer of the I-77 Call to Action which galvanized the business community back in May; Kurt Naas, a Concord business owner who is the founder of the seminal Widen I-77 anti-toll group; County Commissioner Jim Puckett; Bill Russell, president of the Lake Norman Chamber; and Mike Russell, chairman of the chamber.

They have taken their case to Raleigh, meeting intensely with local legislators like Rep. John Bradford and Sen. Jeff Tarte as well as NCDOT officials.

The strategy around fighting the tolls has coalesced around three key areas:

  1. Fighting the toll plan in court, via the Widen I-77 lawsuit initiated by Naas.
  2. Working through the legislature and NCDOT to invalidate the contract.
  3. Actively supporting candidates who are opposed to the tolls.

The third avenue is coming to a head right now with the Nov. 3 election less than a week away. Local elected officials who serve on regional planning bodies like the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization can have major influence over the toll plan, especially around alternatives.

The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization controls the priority list of road-improvement proposals that are ultimately scored by the NCDOT.

The metropolitan planning organization voted on “Prioritization 4.0,” a list of potential projects for Iredell, Mecklenburg and Union counties in October. Of course, it did not include general purpose lanes for I-77 between Lake Norman and Charlotte, and toll opponent Washam, therefore, cast the only no vote. The CRTPO endorses their priorities for virtually all regional transportation projects, and sends them on to the NCDOT with the full weight of the organization.

Just as important, though, are the mayors. One of the more ardent critics of the anti-toll movement—besides McAulay—is Huntersville Mayor Swain and both are in the bullseye of business and anti-toll advocates.

Mayors of towns the size of Huntersville—and even Cornelius—have the ear of the governor. Neither Swain nor Cornelius Mayor Chuck Travis responded to the I-77 Business Plan survey.



The Committee for a Better Lake Norman, a political action committee, is headed up by Hettwer, the former chamber chair. The committee has come out with a “Cancel the I-77 Contract Voter Guide, endorsed by the I-77 Business Plan.”

At the top of this endorsement list is anti-toll advocate John Aneralla, candidate for mayor of Huntersville. The list of endorsements includes six candidates in Huntersville, and all six candidates for five seats on the Cornelius town board.

Hettwer is an organizer of the Committee for a Better Lake Norman. “This is the biggest freaking issue over the past 20 years and it will be for the next 20 years,” he said.

The Committee for a Better Lake Norman initially stayed clear of tolls. “In the early days, conceptually, the toll plan, while not perfect, made some logical sense.  It was chosen as an option by our politicians above a ‘do nothing’ approach,” Hettwer said.



The original I-77 Business Plan event at Michael Waltrip Racing back in May, organized and run by Cornelius resident Mac McAlpine, put the business community on notice. Bankers and Realtors were there, lawyers and small business owners.

By all accounts, McAlpine’s presentation blew a highly bureaucratic toll solution out of the water.

“After some significant evaluation and analysis, we felt compelled to change our position,” Hettwer said.

“We feel the current toll plan in its current form will be a great detriment to our community.  If we remained on the sidelines on such an important issue, the relevance and influence in our organization would undoubtedly be put in question,” he added.

He said the toll issue and worsening congestion on I-77 is already affecting the quality of life of Lake Norman residents. “This is a community where people moved here primarily over quality of life…and they can move away for the quality of life,” he said. “If we had a plan that was going to solve the problem we would deal with it, but this contract took away our hope for a solution.”