Aug. 17. Kurt Naas, founder of the Widen I-77 group that has opposed the managed lanes project in court, says his lawsuit is the only real chance Lake Norman residents have to stop the project. Speaking at Business Today’s Newmakers Breakfast, Naas reiterated that the lawsuit is still very much alive, with a hearing before a state court judge due to occur sometime within the next several months.
“Some of the media inaccurately conveyed that our lawsuit was dead when we failed to get a preliminary injunction back in February,” Naas said. “That’s not at all true. We knew going in that getting the injunction was a difficult sell, but we still feel very confident that we will make a strong case in court.”
The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization will vote up or down on a package of regional transportation projects on Wednesday. Because Charlotte has a weighted vote, it is expected to pass.
Despite that, Cornelius Commissioner Woody Washam said he will vote against the plan. “It is the appropriate way to represent the majority of Cornelius citizens and our Town Board,” Washam said.
The 26-mile-long project, running from Charlotte to Mooresville, is expected to cost $648 million. Widening I-77 with general purpose lanes in Lake Norman was budgeted at $100 million.
There are meaningful arguments to be made for adding toll lanes: General purpose lanes fill to capacity in a matter of years because growth and development chase capacity. At the same time, road improvements enable existing businesses to conduct commerce.
700 letters vs. 18
Former Cornelius Mayor Lynette Rinker weighed in on the toll lanes herself, in written comments prior to the CRTPO’s upcoming vote. Her comments were posted only by the CRTPO:
“It is absolutely imperative that you approve the 2016-2025 TIP currently under consideration. The projects included in this plan are integral to the continued viability of this area for continued economic growth and overall quality of life.
It will facilitate the completion of projects that have long been needed to accommodate current growth and anticipated growth. It is a plan that acknowledges that the area has become a major US city that requires creative, transformational, and innovative transportation solutions.”
Local contractors who will work on the project commented favorably as well:
“As a local engineering firm providing services to the design-build contractor on the I-77 Express Lanes Project, I want to share our excitement in being part of this construction effort, putting North Carolinians to work locally on a project that will bring significant economic development to our state and region,” CES Group managing partner Judy Heleine said in written comments prior to the CRTPO vote.
Denver, N.C.-based CES Group Engineers will be performing land surveying and environmental monitoring tasks for the I-77 express lanes project.
“As a local Disadvantaged Business Enterprise company, this multi-year project is very important to our continued growth and development,” Judy Heleine said. According to its website, the company’s predecessor, CES Group Inc., was established in 2000 as a professional engineering design firm by civil/environmental engineer Chuck Heleine and Judy Heleine, an environmental biologist and former industrial chemist with more than 20 years of environmental consulting and management experience.
Charlotte’s representative on the CRTPO, Vi Lyles, has 46 percent of the vote. She has already stated she is voting for the toll plan, as well as representatives from Davidson and Huntersville.
The CRTPO logged more than 700 letters opposing the toll plan. There were a total of 18 in favor of the toll plan, including Rinker and Heleine.
Anger is palpable
The candid breakfast Q&A with Naas brought out some angry sentiments. John Hettwer, a former Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce president, said it was “outrageous that reps from places like Davidson and Huntersville would vote against the will of our people.”
Hettwer called on voters to turn those officials out of office. The Huntersville representative on the CRTPO is Sarah McAulay; Brian Jenest is from Davidson. “This certainly needs to be addressed at the voting booth with they come up for re-election,” Hettwer said.
Overriding Charlotte requires all but two of the remaining 26 delegates to vote contrary, an electoral impossibility, Naas said. So Charlotte’s vote is the only one of any consequence on CRTPO. (The Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners has come out against the toll plan.)
Opponents of the tolls say that the “bonus allocations” amount to legalized bribe money. Politicians like Jenest and McAulay are so enamored with the special NCDOT allocations for local road improvements that they will vote for an inherently awful plan, Naas said.
The bonus allocation package is worth $100 million to the Lake Norman region. But over the course of the 50-year contract with a company rooted in Spain, the toll plan is expected to take a toll on the local economy on the order of $13 billion or more.
A legislative solution seems equally unlikely.
Proposed new legislation by Sen. Jeff Tarte, the former mayor of Cornelius, Rep. John Bradford, a former commissioner and Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville was DOA in Raleigh.
No economic study
All this, Naas said, leaves the court system as the best way to fight the toll plan. “If we win, there would be virtually no penalty to be paid and a 50-year horror show would have been averted,” he said.
A story in Business Today June 16 revealed there was no economic impact study done regarding the widening of I-77 between Charlotte and Lake Norman with toll lanes.
The widen I-77 lawsuit will not be heard by a jury. Rather, the judge will weigh written testimony and affidavits.
One thing Naas still wants to get from the state is an itemized summary of how the DOT arrived at a $100 million penalty should the project be canceled. Thus far, his requests for information have been largely ignored.
The lawsuit claims the NCDOT/Cintra deal violates the state constitution. The lawsuit charges that the General Assembly delegated too much authority to the NCDOT, which will allow the contractor to set toll rates without legislative oversight.
In addition, the lawsuit claims provisions in the contract, including compensation for tax liabilities in the event of a contract termination, are unconstitutional.
Naas, who lives in Cornelius and operates a manufacturing distribution business in Concord, launched Widen I-77 three years ago when the conventional wisdom was that tolls were the only way for the DOT to add capacity to I-77 in the foreseeable future.
Tear up the contract
Meanwhile, virtually all of Lake Norman’s racing community is opposed. Kevin Mahl, one of the owners of Champion Tire & Wheel in Cornelius, fields literally dozens of tractor trailer trucks for races around the country each week.
The toll lanes prohibit large trucks.
“With our Champion location being between exit 25 & exit 28, accessibility, maneuverability and time are all concerns of ours. In managing the 30 tractor-trailers that go to every NASCAR event, it is absolutely critical that we get easy access to and then back from the interstate each week. As we understand it, tractor-trailers cannot access the toll lanes, so we have to make it to the general purpose lanes with the rigs. Then once they are on the interstate, it is crucial that our trucks are able to flow accordingly. We also provide service for the race teams locally and it is also critical that we can get to their 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. I don’t know how to say it any clearer; with all due respect, tear up the I-77 toll project contract.”