Jan 6, 2016 - News

Why Charlotte politicians are so scared of toll roads

Photo by Charlie Cowins via Flickr - Creative Commons

I spent two hours at a Charlotte City Council committee meeting this week where it seemed like all the elected officials in the room tried as hard as they could to avoid voicing an opinion about toll lanes on our city’s highways.

The ironic thing: At this point, they’re the ones with the most power.

Construction has already begun on toll lanes — more formally known as managed lanes or High Occupancy Toll lanes — on Interstate 77 between uptown Charlotte and Huntersville. But under pressure, Charlotte city leaders are considering a last ditch effort to kill the project.

[Agenda story: 10 things you don’t know about the toll lanes planned for I-77]

Why Charlotte has so much power

The government body that sets road project priorities for the Charlotte area is called the Charlotte Regional Transportation Project Organization. It is made up of elected officials from all over the region, but their votes are weighted. The city of Charlotte has almost half of the votes of the whole body, and all of those votes are controlled by a single person — City Council member Vi Lyles. Lately, she’s been receiving direction from the entire council, though.

Just in August, Lyles used Charlotte’s votes to recommend a package of projects that included toll lanes and several dozen other transportation projects in the region. This meant not just the I-77 toll lanes, but future toll lanes in the works for I-485 in the Ballantyne area and U.S. 74/Independence Boulevard.

Image via CRTPO

Image via CRTPO

Since 2007, the city of Charlotte has broadly supported toll lanes as a strategy to keep highways moving as population increases put more cars on the road. As recently as July, the entire City Council heard a presentation on the strategy and decided to move forward with it.

The City Council is now being asked to defend its position. But members are very scared to do that. Here’s why:

Photo via Widen I-77 on Facebook

(1) Toll lanes are super unpopular

It’s more than just people on the Internet. Yes, the citizens group Widen I-77 is large and powerful and has driven the movement against the toll lanes.

Photo by Widen I-77 via Facebook

pat-mccrory

But that influence has already translated into the real world. You know what the big difference is between August and today? There was an election in between. Politicians who supported the toll lane project or simply didn’t oppose it were booted out of office. Most of them were in the town of Huntersville.

Elected officials in Charlotte are a little more insulated from a direct backlash to the toll lanes, but they’re not immune. And toll opponents have vowed retribution at the ballot box.

(2) Nobody really knows how to cancel the contract for I-77

We’re so far along in the process (contracts have been signed, etc.) that there’s no easy way out of the I-77 toll lane project. There’s been a lot of back and forth about who specifically can make the call. Can Gov. Pat McCrory? Maybe?

Can the legislature? Maybe?

Traffic on highway

Technically, the Secretary of Transportation has the legal authority to back out of the contract, but it will cost several hundred million in break-up fees. State officials say it’s impossible to know just how large the fee will be until it actually happens.

(3) Dumping toll roads could make the state so mad they pull funding for all Charlotte’s road projects

This is really the big gamble. I think if you asked city elected officials, they’d tell you that they’re not crazy about the I-77 project.

But the thing is, state officials are threatening that if Charlotte pulls the plug, everything they know and love is at risk.

For one, the other managed lane projects Charlotte has been thinking about, the ones on I-485 and U.S. 74. These would definitely be off the table, N.C. Department of Transportation Chairman Ned Curran told them.

Charlotte’s not ready to give up on these, it seems like.  What’s the difference between those and the I-77 project? In the I-77 project, a private company — Madrid-based Cintra — has all the authority to set policy on tolls and how the road are maintained. On the other toll projects, the state would have the power.

But there is a broader risk, too.

The I-77 project is tied up with more than 90 other transportation projects in the Charlotte region. There have been not-so-subtle hints that all these would be dead if Charlotte decides to vote toll lanes down.

(4) The city’s transportation and planning staff is very much in favor of the projects

The Charlotte Department of Transportation is desperately in favor of toll lanes as a strategy for managing congestion long-term. Planning and design manager Norm Steinman has made that more than clear.

“We have to use everything and the kitchen sink to keep up with demand,” he said.

Is all this enough to sway the city of Charlotte to stay the course on toll lanes? I really think it is. In the committee meeting Monday, they voted 3-2 to endorse toll lanes as a strategy, though they knew it would ultimately go to the full board. I honestly think toll lanes are going to move forward.

The full council will take up the issue next week but might delay a decision until a week later. The regional transportation organization will vote again toward the end of the month.

Cover image by Charlie Cowins via FlickrCreative Commons

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