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Mooresville mayor gets on board with I-77 Business Plan


Feb. 9By Dave Yochum. If you think the I-77 battle is over, you’re wrong. It has expanded and moved into Iredell County. Mooresville Mayor Miles Atkins attended a special business briefing Monday held by two anti-toll groups: The I-77 Business Plan and WidenI-77.org, the original anti-toll group.

It’s a coup for the anti-toll team, which was stung by a judge’s ruling in January as well as what looks like a charade by Gov. Pat McCrory. He called on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization to vote on the concept of managed lanes yet again, despite the fact that the CRTPO is controlled by Charlotte, and virtually none of the crippling congestion on I-77 occurs within the Charlotte city limits.

“It’s the governor who is forcing a choice for his ill-fated toll project over the needs of my community.  I refuse to subscribe to the paradigm he has created that it is an all or nothing proposition,” Mayor Atkins said.

There’s a distinction that’s being made right now: Being anti-toll is different from being against managed lanes, the concept of someday using tolls to manage or control the volume of traffic in the highway system. And managing lanes is just one way for government to plan and budget for highway improvements.

This particular plan, valued at $650 million and propped up by a 50-year contract with a company whose roots are in Spain, is widely vilified among local business leaders and politicians.

Although none of the leadership of the Mooresville/South Iredell Chamber attended the meeting at the Charles Mack Center in downtown Mooresville, prominent elected officials were there, including NC Rep. John Bradford of Cornelius; NC Rep. Charles Jeter, Huntersville; and NC Sen. David Curtis, Lincolnton.

Also lending his support was formerly Rep. Robert Brawley, who is opposing McCrory in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

“I don’t think the I-77 tolls are a done deal at all, and that we can still stop it,” Atkins said. “That is why I am encouraging our residents to get even more involved in the movement.”

About 50 people attended the event which was led by I-77 Business Plan leaders John Hettwer, a former chairman of the Lake Norman Chamber, and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett. Both are seasoned business owners and both are ardent opponents of the NCDOT/Cintra toll plan.

Among their concerns:

  • As first reported in Business Today, there was no economic impact study done for the toll project, despite it being the first of its kind in North Carolina.
  • The first dollar of principal payment, according to Hettwer and Puckett, doesn’t occur until 2033, which means Cintra recoups its investment long before the 50-year contract is completed
  • Cintra and its parent company, Madrid, Spain-based Ferrovial, have less than a stellar history, including a bridge failure and projects that resulted in bankruptcy or an early exit.
  • The air rights for the project have been ceded to Cintra, according to Hettwer and Puckett.
  • The current contract does not have cross-over abilities for cars in the toll lanes to easily cross the general purpose lanes and exit at Lake Norman’s “Main Street”—Catawba Avenue—as well as other major thoroughfares, including Exit 23, the location of Novant Huntersville Presbyterian Hospital
  • Dense, worsening traffic in the general purpose lanes ultimately benefits the operator of the toll lanes, so the NCDOT’s willingness to put in cross-overs across the GP lanes actually heightens congestion, Hettwer and Puckett said.

The only way Cintra makes money is to “clog the GP lanes so you will pay the toll,” Puckett said.

The cost of canceling the contract has been a moving target, with a $100 million penalty mentioned frequently. Puckett said canceling the contract is cheaper than the long-term economic toll.

“There is zero doubt this contract will be cancelled,” Puckett said, explaining that more legislators are lining up against what looks like a prototype for other parts of the state. Meanwhile, the plan puts Lake Norman and Iredell at an economic disadvantage because interstates in and out of Cabarrus County, South Carolina and Gaston County are being widened and improved without tolls.

Members of the I-77 Business Plan, as well as WidenI-77.org meet every Tuesday at the Lake Norman Chamber to direct the fight against this particular toll plan.

The Lake Norman Chamber, along with many local elected officials, initially took a firm stance that the widening of I-77 from exit 36 to just below exit 23 was critical to the overall economic health of the region. Bill Russell, president of the chamber and an ex-officio board member of the Lake Norman Regional Transportation Commission, said local elected and business leaders were presented with the option of widening I-77 through tolling or waiting 20 years or more for the project to be funded with general purpose lanes.

“We did not think putting off relief for 20 years was an option,” he said. “However, it is now evident the proposed HOT Lanes will not relieve congestion – it actually guarantees it.”

The Lake Norman Chamber reversed its stand on the contract this past June and has firmly opposed the project along with the Towns of Huntersville, Davidson, Cornelius and Mecklenburg County.

Mayor Atkins said this: “I believe there is a way to be both for canceling the toll project and for supporting the vital infrastructure projects needed for Mooresville.”