June 17. By Dave Yochum. NC Sen. Jeff Tarte says he will meet with Lake Norman business owners June 30 in Raleigh as part of the ongoing battle to fight NCDOT plans to improve I-77 between Charlotte and Mooresville with toll lanes. He has reserved the press room in the State Capitol at noon on that day, and he is setting up meetings between Lake Norman business leaders and members of the legislature.
He said the Mecklenburg County Board’s resolution Tuesday night seeking to defund the toll lane project was a “huge” step toward building the support necessary to run the toll plan off the road for good. He plans to file a bill to defund the Lake Norman section of the 27-mile plan.
Two fellow senators, he said, have already asked how they can help the effort to undo the $650 million contract between the NCDOT and I-77 Mobility Partners, the new partnership with roots in Cintra, a company from Spain. Tarte did not name the senators.
The Lake Norman business community is getting on board—literally.
At least one busload of business owners will head to Raleigh June 30 for a day-long lobbying effort and show of support for Tarte’s efforts.
Confirmed attendees include Todd Carpenter, general manager of Champion Tire & Wheel; Shannon Hilton, CFO of Carolina Beverage Group; Jennifer Cone, a partner at The McIntosh Law Firm; John Hettwer, owner of Payroll Plus, and a former chairman of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce; Mike Russell, the current chairman of the chamber; Tom McMahon, the owner of Sperry Van Ness Commercial Real Estate Advisors; and Jim Engel, the CEO of Aquesta Financial.
“We are very concerned that the toll road is going to severely damage business growth and employment in the North Mecklenburg area,” Engel said.
The toll lane plan apparently offers no direct ingress or egress at Exit 28/Catawba Avenue, often dubbed the “Main Street” of Lake Norman. At the same time, large trucks will not be allowed in the toll lanes, which may mean, it would be exceedingly difficult to cross from the inner toll lanes to the exits.
Engel said the toll lanes are “specifically designed to maximize congestion in order to maximize profits” for I-77 Mobility Partners, Cintra and its parent company, Madrid-based Ferrovial.
He went on to point out that the project was presented to the public based on the absence of state funds. This, in light of Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed NC Connect highway bond package, has brought the business community—let alone many residents—to a boiling point.
Polls conducted by Business Today and Cornelius Today indicate overwhelming opposition to the project which is being undertaken without an economic impact study.
The fact that there was not an economic impact study came out at yesterday’s Newsmakers Breakfast with John R. “Mac” McAlpine V, a motorsports engineer who organized the “I-77 Emergency Call to Action” for 150-plus business leaders in May. Opposition has built since then.
“It is now clear that free lanes are both in fact feasible and financially viable. The DOT refuses to score the widening of 77 from Exit 23 to Exit 36 but rather insists on inclusion of a much larger project extending all the way to South Carolina,” Engel said.
The governor, however, said he will neither stop the project, nor attempt to add it to the NC Connect bond package.
“Shockingly, no economic impact study has been conducted by the state. Yet, the governor seems determined to alienate the very people who helped elect him to office while forcing business to seriously consider moving employment to South Carolina,” Engel said.
Tarte said he is still not optimistic about successfully overturning the toll plan, based on the process having come this far.
“No it’s not a 50-percent possibility. It is not good, but it is better than it was,” Tarte said. Votes taken by the governing boards of Davidson, Cornelius and Mecklenburg County will help in the fight. The Huntersville Town Board vote Monday night, however, won’t.
The Tarte bill is just one of the fronts in the battle to fight the tolls. The widenI-77.org lawsuit is still under way. It is being led by Concord business owner Kurt Naas, who lives in Cornelius. At the same time, there are efforts under way to include I-77 in the governor’s bond package.
On another front, people like Diane Gilroy, a Spanish professor at UNC-Charlotte, are looking for signs of corruption or fraud anywhere in the I-77 Mobility Partners-Cintra-Ferrovial chain.
“This has always been about keeping the pressure up to allow time to sway the governor to add to bond funding and get the businesses from our area to then support and get [it] passed. The bill isn’t the end game,” said Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett.