By ANDREW WILKINS
MOORESVILLE – Residents from south Iredell and north Mecklenburg counties turned out for a public hearing Wednesday on the N.C. DOT’s proposed I-77 widening project, including High Occupancy Toll lanes. And what a hearing it was: DOT officials got an earful from hostile toll-lane opponents who called the project “criminal,” said it would endanger citizens in the event of a nuclear meltdown at McGuire Nuclear Station and would cost too much money. Opponents said they want the state to widen the highway without toll lanes.
The hearing was the first of two on the subject this week (another was scheduled Thursday in Charlotte). It looked at several options for widening the road using toll lanes. DOT officials said the preferred option was the one that has been discussed for more than a year: widening the road with two high-occupancy toll lanes in both directions between Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius, and one HOT lane in both directions from Exit 28 to Exit 36 in Mooresville.
The DOT says the toll lanes will be optional and the number of regular lanes on I-77 won’t be reduced by the construction. Officials say the high-occupancy toll lanes, which can be use by paying a fee or by carpooling, will be to provide a reliable travel time along I-77 between Charlotte and Lake Norman.
The DOT says it’s planning to build toll lanes because of projections of growing congestion, and because environmental constraints and a lack of land limit the options for continuing to widen the road using conventional lanes.
The DOT has said it hopes to pick a private company this summer to construct and operating the HOT lanes, in a public-private partnership or P3.
At Wednesday’s meeting, citizens had a chance to study maps and talk with engineers and project managers before a formal presentation. At the hearing, they asked questions and offered comments.
Opponents were out in force, some from the Cornelius-based group Widen I-77. They voiced a wide array of questions, complaints, and accusations about the project.
Anticipating a contentious hearing, NCDOT spokesman Jamille Robbins set the ground rules: “I have only one rule, and that’s the Golden Rule,” Robbins told the crowd. “Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Afford each of our speakers the same respect you deserve.”
During his presentation, Robbins reiterated information given during the pre-meeting session, including the estimated cost of the preferred option, Option 2. He reviewed the entire widening project using on-screen maps. Robbins emphasized throughout the presentation that general purpose lanes, or lanes without toll booths, would not be reduced and that drivers did not have to pay a toll to commute to and from Charlotte.
However, once the questions and comment session began, the atmosphere quickly turned hostile towards the NCDOT and its representatives.
CITIZENS EXPRESS FRUSTRATIONS, FEARS OVER HOT LANE PROJECT
Tim Scott of Cornelius opened the comments by declaring the project “a criminal situation” and that politicians had failed to be “stewards of our state.” He said he’s frustrated that no new general purpose lanes would be constructed.
Doug King from North Charlotte echoed those concerns, and complained about the project’s cost (NC DOT has said it could cost $500 million). He urged the NCDOT to install only general purpose lanes, and asked how many in attendance opposed the HOT lanes plan. Following the unofficial vote, he declared that “everyone at this meeting tonight” is in opposition to this toll program, though the only participants in his vote appeared to be supporters of the anti-toll group Widen I-77.
NCDOT representatives attempted to respond to these and other questions and concerns at the meeting, and promised they would stay to answer each question and would deliver written responses to any questions they didn’t have answers for.
Some toll lane opponents have alleged corruption in the project. But a consultant from Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the firms advising the NCDOT on the project, responded to a concern that his firm was providing kickbacks to legislators and benefiting from back-room deals. The consultant said that’s not the case and he reminded the audience that Parsons Brinckerhoff was prohibited from bidding on or profiting from the project, beyond its role as a consultants.
Another NCDOT representative explained that, in the event that the private contractor in charge of construction defaults on its contract, the taxpayers would not take a loss. “In the unlikely event a default were to occur,” said Rodger Rochelle of the NCDOT, “the way the contract is set up we would essentially be getting a $500 million project for just a penny on each dollar.”
Other citizens who spoke complained about a lack of information from the NCDOT on alternative plans, such as the possibility and exact difference in cost between constructing HOT lanes instead of general purpose lanes. When the moderator, Robbins, could only provide an estimate, but promised a written response later, the audience laughed, jeered, and spoke over his attempts to finish his answer.
In other comments Wednesday, opponents accused the NCDOT of “tyranny” in the bidding process and called public-private partnerships (P3) like the one the DOT is planning a precursor to fascism.
One speaker also expressed fears that the toll lanes would create congestion, which could be safety risk in the event of a nuclear meltdown at the McGuire Nuclear Station.
Despite attempts by NCDOT and its contractors to assuage the concerns and frustrations, many residents left the meeting frustrated and vowed to continue their opposition to the project. NCDOT engineers, spokespersons, and advisers remained afterwards to answer questions that couldn’t be posed during the meeting.
A public record of the minutes of this meeting is to be available later on the NCDOT website. NCDOT representatives expect the project to go forward following clearance of final environmental studies in August, with construction slated to begin in 2015.
July 12, 2013, Public meetings schedule on I-77 HOT lanes plans
May 22, 2013, MUMPO delegates unanimously OK I-77 HOT lanes project