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Much-heralded I-77 ‘solution’ could take years

NCDOT SECRETARY TROGDON

Aug. 15. By Dave Vieser and Dave Yochum. One defeated governor, a Facebook page with 10,000 followers and three vivid community protests later, the NCDOT now says it will see to it that Lake Norman eventually gets one new general purpose lane and one new toll lane on I-77.

However, the cost to tear up the contract could range between $400 million and $700 million and the desired changes could take as long as five years to complete. NCDOT Secretary William Trogdon announced the plans during a historic meeting of the I-77 Local Advisory Group held at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.

The Exit 28 Ridiculousness Facebook page exploded with dismay soon after Trogdon made his announcement, which, astonishingly, included subsidies for toll lane users. The page, which grew as opposition to the toll plan grew, has more than 10,000 followers.

Political leaders like Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla were also less than pleased, partly because the NCDOT is bound by rules and regulations.

“The No. 1 objective is to have NCDOT operate the facilty, which means we need a legislative solution sooner rather than later, so I call on the state legislature to work with the governor’s office to find that solution,” Aneralla, an early toll opponent, said.

Visceral opposition to the 50-year, $650 million contract with a Spanish company rose from what were then ordinary people—NASCAR types Greg Wallace and John V. “Mac” McAlpine and businessman Kurt Naas—and later spread to the Lake Norman Chamber and even politicians who once favored the contract.

“This was a grass roots movement at the start,” said McAlpine, who ran the I-77 “Call to Action” meeting at Michael Waltrip back in 2015. “At first I was told by many that it was a waste of my time, but today’s announcement is the first time we have made ground in any box.”

McAlpine carried on his efforts among local business leaders because he feared the toll lanes would have a negative impact on the local economy.

NCDOT’s plan is limited by the fact that the agency operates within a strict set of government rules and regulations.

NC Rep. Chaz Beasley, who represents Huntersville and points south in the state assembly, said today’s announcement once again shows that this contract was—and continues to be—a bad deal for our community. “We must continue to apply pressure on Cintra to implement, at minimum, the changes Secretary Trogdon suggests. We cannot and will not give up on a permanent solution to this toll debacle,” he said.

Eventually the opposition grew and hundreds of people demonstrated two different times on the Exit 28 bridge in opposition to the tolls.

Trogdon unveiled a number of objectives in his announcement:

  • Convert one toll lane to a general purpose lane between Exits 23-28, and add one general purpose lane from Exits 28-36.
  • Add auxiliary lanes for local drivers traveling short distances between Exits 23-35.
  • Install hardened shoulders during peak travel periods.
  • Maximum toll limits will be adopted.
  • Frequent user discounts will be established.
  • Allow medium size trucks on toll lanes.

County Legisilator Jim Puckett’s comments at the conclusion of the meeting reflected what was on many attendee’s minds: “I urge, I beg legislators from both sides of the aisle in Raleigh and Governor Cooper to understand the serious economic impact these toll lanes will have on our region.”

Fellow County Legislator Pat Cotham sounded a similar tone: “This project deserves special treatment by our state representatives. Put an asterisk next to it.”

Kurt Naas, who led opposition to the tolls as a private citizen agreed: “This is an exceptional situation and it needs exceptional treatment.” He was elected to the Cornelius Town Board last fall.

Trogdon promised to have a full report on the I-77 situatiom prepared for the state legislature when they return to Raleigh in 2019 for their full, or long session.

Lake Norman Chamber CEO Bill Russell said he had a “sinking feeling today after all the hype of a significant decision regarding the I-77 toll lane project.” In other words, there is no immediate solution; rather, negotiations will get under way—subject to Legislative approval—to improve key provisions of the contract and expand non-toll options in the area.

The problem is, relations between the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled legislature appear to be at an all-time low.

Russell said the chamber will host an I-77 Business Briefing at 7 pm Aug. 22 at the Comfort Suites at Lake Norman, 14510 Boulder Park Drive in Huntersville.  Attendees may arrive at 6:45.  Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett and Past Chamber Chair John Hettwer will be the presenters. While open to the public, the capacity is 85 people so it’s on a first arrival basis. 

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