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Evernham: Toll planners should be ‘ashamed’

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July 15. (UPDATED 1:45 pm with comments from Sen. Tarte.) Opposition to the I-77 toll plan continues to gain speed. Major voices in the motorsports community are speaking out against the $650 million plan to widen I-77 with a public private partnership.

As reported in BusinessToday’s July print edition, Humpy Wheeler opposes the current plan. Another major voice in the motorsports community, Ray Evernham, said the project has been “mismanaged, miscommunicated and is not in any way, shape or form fair to the residents, taxpayers and users of I-77.”

He said the “team that negotiated this deal should be ashamed and held accountable.”

Greg Wallace, son of racing legend Rusty Wallace and an executive in his own right, said “simply put, the Lake Norman region and its business community—of which our motorsports industry is a large part—cannot withstand the negative long-term economic effects of the toll lanes project.”

Wallace will be sharing his sentiments at a meeting tonight of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO).

Related: Read Greg Wallace’s letter to the CRTPO members

A 30-day public comment period for the 2016-2025 draft Transportation Improvement Plan began July 1. CRTPO will vote on the plan at its Aug. 19 meeting. The proposed plan, of course, does not include general purpose lanes for I-77 from Charlotte to Mooresville, but it does include four additional toll projects 77, 485 and 74. While it is a regional transportation authority, the CRTPO is dominated by Charlotte interests.

This battle is a test of Lake Norman’s political strength against Charlotte’s.

Statements opposing the tolls will be provided by Wallace, Wheeler and Evernham.

Racing legends they may be, but they run serious enterprises—and they give money to political campaigns. Wallace is vice president of brand management and corporate communications for Rusty Wallace Inc.

Meanwhile, high-level, toll-busting strategy sessions that include members of the Lake Norman Chamber, the racing community and local political leaders are being held at the chamber. It’s a sea change for the chamber which has struggled in the past with volunteer leaders whose paychecks were written by Charlotte-based enterprises.

Related: Lake Norman Chamber gives their stance on the I-77 toll lane project.

NC Rep. John Bradford and NC Sen. Jeff Tarte called for business support to fight the toll plans seven weeks ago when Cornelius resident and motorsports employee John “Mac” McAlpine organized the “I-77 Business Transportation Summit,” a landmark event in Lake Norman history.

More businesses began to visibly oppose the common political wisdom this spring.

“I think this deal will turn out to be so bad, that it will be remembered among all the people who were in office at the time who allowed this to happen,” said former chamber Chairman John Hettwer, himself the owner of a leading Lake Norman business, Payroll Plus. “The business community in 2009, 2010, 2011 was struggling with the economy and we had confidence that our elected officials were making the right decisions,” Hettwer said.

Instead, political leaders, with the exception of people like Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, were led down a particular path by the accepted transportation authorities at the NCDOT.

McAlpine said this: “We continue to educate, inspire and increase awareness of the negative economic impact the toll lanes will have on the Lake Norman and State economies. We continue to gain business and political support to stop the project.”

He will be speaking at the CRTPO meeting tonight at 6 pm. A contingent of business leaders and political figures is expected to attend.

Related: Larry John’s letter to the CRTPO members.

“This isn’t a sprint, it is a concerted methodical effort to turn our future around in the right direction,” McAlpine said.

A press release from the WidenI-77.org anti-toll group said now is the time to stop the toll plan. The NCDOT has put out the figure of $100 million to end the toll plan. Meanwhile, business leaders are saying that is merely a position to thwart opposition.

“Given that Charlotte and the Lake Norman towns comprise the most populated areas of the state, it is unconscionable that general purpose lanes are not being proposed for our highways while the state plans to spend billions of dollars on rural highways,” said Vallee Bubak, a Davidson resident who has spoken out frequently for the WidenI-77 anti-toll group.

“I-77 is only two lanes through what is one of the state’s fastest growing areas and has for decades needed at least a third general purpose lane. For the safety of the public and our economic well-being, citizens are requesting that CRTPO not approve the draft TIP and add general purpose lanes for I-77 from exits 23 to 36. In addition, citizens oppose the use of taxpayer money for entering into 50-year contracts with private companies to collect tolls when for at least half as much money the state could build regular lanes.”

UPDATE: NC Sen. Jeff Tarte sent this comment to Business Today early this afternoon:

“I continue to advocate in Raleigh for the passage of legislation to stop the tolling project in North Mecklenburg. I would like to thank the Lake Norman Chamber for their important and strong support. Specifically LKN Chamber President Bill Russell, Chamber Chairman Mike Russell, Mecklenberg County Commissioner Jim Puckett as well as I-77 Business Plan leaders Mac MacAlpine and Greg Wallace as they have been instrumental in marshaling local support to stop the managed lanes project. With limited time remaining for the NCGA to be in session we have garnered some support in Raleigh, but the outlook on passage of the bill is not good at this time. However, I am encouraged that the issue resonates with our business leaders, and I am excited that that our region has found community leaders such as Bill, Mike, Jim, Mac and Greg to help advocate for this issue with state officials.”  

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