Aug. 19. Davidson’s representative on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization will vote “no” tonight on the 2016-2025 highway plan which includes toll lanes managed by a much-reviled private company whose roots are in Spain.
While the ultimate CRTPO vote is likely to be “yes”—Charlotte City Councilwoman Vi Lyles has 46 percent of the region-wide vote—how Davidson Town Commissioner Brian Jenest votes is another win for the Lake Norman team.
“There is momentum,” declared John “Mac” McAlpine, organizer of the I-77 Call to Action held at Michael Waltrip Raceworld in June. “This is a terrible deal for the state. The legislature can’t ignore it.”
McAlpine and Kurt Naas, a Concord business owner who launched the WidenI-77 anti-toll group, have galvanized the business community against this particular toll plan—one that is so arcane that it requires a 900-page contract and a 50-year partnership with a shadowy international behemoth from Madrid. This, in a county known since Revolutionary War times as a hornet’s nest of independence.
The CRTPO has received more than 700 written comments from individuals and business leaders opposed to the NCDOT-Cintra plan. There were 18 statements in favor of the plan, some of them made by sub-contractors who will benefit from what looks more and more like a bloated, big-government plan.
It looks like something is happening among business and political leaders along with more strenuous opposition among political leaders to this particular toll plan. Tolls are not out of the question, but this plan, valued at $648 million, is.
A simple widening of I-77 in Lake Norman was pegged at $100 million, without the assistance of Cintra and its parent company, Ferrovial.
Tolls do manage traffic
Jenest, a partner in a leading landscape architecture and land planning firm in Charlotte, said “we are getting a deal we did not ask for.” He explained his upcoming “no” vote by saying the Cintra-NCDOT deal is deeply flawed, although the concept of managed lanes—traffic management with the help of tolls—is not altogether bad.
“I’m not in favor of this deal…now that you are talking about an alternative that does include managed lanes, I can be part of this,” Jenest said.
The reason has to do with the habit of unmanaged development chasing general purpose lanes. They’re full beyond capacity in a matter of years.
Members of the CRTPO will vote up or down on a total of $2 billion in road improvements; the I-77 plan is just a part of it, but the rules say the total package is a yea or nay deal.
The NCDOT and Cintra signed a contract last year that called for Cintra to finance the bulk of the cost for the I-77 widening. Cintra would earn its money from tolls collected over the 50-year life of the deal.
Is the $100 million penalty real?
NCDOT has said the state could have to pay Cintra $100 million if it breaks its contract with the company.
John Hettwer, the CEO of Payroll Plus at Exit 28 in Cornelius, said the $100 million figure was pulled from thin air. “It could easily be zero,” he said, one indication that some kind of negotiated settlement could be in the offing as political support evaporates.
“We are pleased that Brian Jenest has decided to vote no tonight at the CRTPO meeting,” said Hettwer, a former chairman of the Lake Norman Chamber.
“It sends a clear message that Brian and Davidson stands in opposition to this I-77 toll project and recognizes the overwhelming opposition in our community to this project,” Hettwer said.
McAlpine, a top engineer at Michael Waltrip Raceworld, said the NCDOT-Cintra deal does “nothing to fix our lake Norman congestion problem in the short or long term.”
Evernham: Cintra’s ‘questionable past’
Rather, it “is a tremendous waste of taxpayer money and sets up the state for future multi-billion dollar liabilities that will leave our grandchildren with the majority of the burden,” McAlpine said.
“These tolls are a business deterrent that will have a devastating effect on commercial investment and retention. They will send good jobs elsewhere and leave us trapped in our business and homes with no good transportation alternatives. I have faith that a plan this bad will be righted with constant pressure and the education of the facts. The facts are on our side and our strongest ally moving forward. Elected officials are seeing the light that if they do not actively oppose it, they are part of the problem and not part of the solution,” McAlpine, a Cornelius resident, said.
The motorsports community, one of the backbones of the Lake Norman economy, is waving a red flag at this deal.
“I’m in 100 percent support of the business owners and citizens opposing the I-77 toll lane project. The project has been mismanaged, miscommunicated and is not in any way, shape or form fair to the residents, taxpayers and users of I77. The team that negotiated this deal should be ashamed and held accountable. This is a project that could have been completed under much different terms. At a time when our country needs to stand together more than ever, how can we invest money with a foreign company that has a questionable past? How can we stand and say to those who can not afford to use these lanes that their tax money will go towards this project and they will suffer through the construction delays, but because they can’t afford to pay, they have less rights than those who can? This project should not represent separation of classes. It should represent American ingenuity working to find a way to make things fair and available to all people. It should also represent our leaders being responsible, accountable and doing the right thing. Stop the finger pointing, look hard at the deal and find a way.”