Business

Humpy Wheeler: Toll plan won’t work

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By Dave Yochum. After nearly three dozen Lake Norman business leaders called on North Carolina legislators in the State Capitol, there’s solid business momentum behind a legislative effort to defund the 50-year, $650 million contract with a company whose roots are in Spain.

From the motorsports community to community bankers, companies with hundreds of employees, not to mention brick and mortar, are speaking out.

A BusinessToday/Cornelius Today online readers poll showed 707 people who participated wanted a “time-out” on the Cintra toll plan, and 63 wanted the plan to go forward. Another online poll asking if readers had faith in the NCDOT resulted in 398 readers saying they did not, while seven said they did have faith.

Humpy Wheeler, the dean of the motorsports community in the Golden Crescent business community, said “with the tremendous concentration of motorsports in the I-77 corridor we must do something, or some other area is going to slowly steal it away.”

Wheeler is the chairman of The Wheeler Co., a management consulting firm focused on professional sports, particularly motorsports investors. He serves on the board of Belmont Abbey College, the National Motorsports Council and the Governor’s Sports Commission. He is the former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Lincoln County missed the motorsports boom completely but it is now in a position with new four-lane highways—321 and 16—to “take tremendous advantage in getting teams to move.”

“Unless something is done to relieve this horrible congestion we stand to eventually lose the motorsports industry,” Wheeler explained. But he is no fan of the Cintra deal.

“Stop the current agreement no matter what it takes,” Wheeler said. Canceling the Cintra contract is estimated to be a $100 million proposition, but the business community, according to people like Mike Russell, chairman of the Lake Norman Chamber, is starting to agree that it’s the right thing to do. Data suggests that $13 billion will be extracted from the local economy from tolls over the course of the five-decade plan.

The correct course of action right now, Wheeler said, is to cancel the Cintra agreement, negotiate a settlement and find the money to improve I-77 through bonds or developer fees.

Wheeler said adding just one toll lane that doesn’t allow trucks is a mistake. Four lanes in each direction are needed now, Wheeler said, not just three.

“However, whether it is a toll or not, one extra lane is simply not going to make it work. With the tremendous influx of new residents coming we actually need at least four lanes on each side. Three will not handle the traffic when the next boom hits,” Wheeler said. “So, in essence whether it is a toll or free lane it won’t get the job done so if any agreement states we can’t add an extra lane, then we are blowing in the wind.”

The region should not “get caught without the ability to add a fourth lane when this area explodes again and 20,000 new housing units are added,” he said.

He also recommended imposing a development that goes to highway improvements on a per house basis. In addition, he recommended pressing Huntersville, Davidson and Cornelius “to cooperate in sensible zoning that creates better traffic flow.”

“We must understand that without the ability to move traffic the quality of life goes way down and makes an area eventually hostile to economic development…we risk large property tax increases,” Wheeler said.

Business leaders flank McAlpine just before getting on the bus. Click to enlarge

Business leaders flank McAlpine just before getting on the bus to Raleigh. Click to enlarge

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, who joined the business leaders’ trip to Raleigh, said the toll plan as currently devised will damage the economy at exits 23, 25, 28 and 30, “so 30 or 40 years of land use and zoning and planning is completely useless.” Express lane or toll traffic won’t have easy access to those exits, he explained.

Exit 28 at Catawba Avenue has been called the “Main Street” of Lake Norman by members of the Lake Norman Chamber, which has come out against the toll plan. Huntersville Presbyterian Medical Center is located at Exit 23.

Champion Tire & Wheel is located in between the two exits. “It is critical that we can get to race shops in a timely, easy manner as well. Not seeing that with the toll-lane project. We have a sense that the toll lane hurdle is going to impede our ability to conduct business,” said Kevin Mahl, co-owner of Champion. It operates a fleet of more than 30 tractor-trailers.

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