Posted on 05 May 2013.
Widen I-77 leader Kurt Naas of Cornelius (right) and Rep. Robert Brawley of Mooresville answered questions at Sunday’s press conference. (David Boraks/DavidsonNews.net)
By DAVID BORAKS
MOORESVILLE – As a key vote approaches on the NC DOT’s plans to widen I-77 by adding toll lanes, opponents with the group Widen I-77 are still hoping to build a following for their anti-toll cause. On Sunday they hosted a press conference to introduce their latest ally, state Rep. Robert Brawley (R-Mooresville).
The announcement that Brawley has changed his mind and now opposes the plan for High Occupancy Toll lanes, or HOT lanes, is the latest sign of division among area Republicans over the issue. Republican legislative leaders, including House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, have said the DOT’s proposal is the best option for widening the highway now. But the Mecklenburg Republican Party has come out against HOT lanes, as did the GOP-dominated county commission in Iredell County.
Local officials on the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO) are expected to vote May 22 whether to let the DOT’s project proceed.
The DOT is proposing to convert existing lanes or construct new lanes to create high-occupancy toll lanes from I-277 in Charlotte north to Exit 36 in Mooresville. Two HOT lanes would be built in each direction between Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One HOT lane would be added in each direction between Cornelius and Mooresville, a section that includes two causeways over Lake Norman.
REP. BRAWLEY SEES AN ALTERNATIVE
Facing a row of TV cameras Sunday afternoon at Fat Boys restaurant off I-77, Brawley told the gathering of Widen I-77 leaders, Republicans and Tea Party members that he now believes the state has the money for a scaled-down version of the I-77 project: a 14-mile section of I-77 from Huntersville to Exit 36.
Brawley spoke in front of a wall showing petitions with signatures against toll lanes on I-77. (David Boraks/DavidsonNews.net)
“We don’t need to add toll lanes for 27 miles all the way into Charlotte to fix this problem. Instead, we can add a lane in each direction. That gives us a 50 percent increase in capacity for less than $100 million,” he said.
Behind him on the wall were photocopies of a petition that Widen I-77 leaders say has attracted more than 2,000 signatures in recent weeks from Lake Norman area residents. (The towns of Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville have a combined 121,000 residents.)
Brawley said he had met this weekend with Widen I-77 leaders and with residents, and researched the issue. “There clearly is a way to widen I-77 without toll lanes,” he said.
Brawley’s statement was a page out of Widen I-77′s book. The group’s leader Kurt Naas of Cornelius has been arguing that instead of a larger project to widen I-77 all the way to Charlotte, the state should consider a scaled-back project that targets the area most in need of new lanes – between Huntersville and Mooresville.
$100 MILLION AVAILABLE?
Brawley said $170 million in taxpayer funds are available to help pay for the widening project, which is expected to cost an estimated $550 million. He said the larger project includes the 27-mile widening, toll lanes and work on nine highway overpasses.
But he argued, as Naas has previously, that the state can solve the traffic problems on the road by widening just 14 miles and adding two bridges – all without tolls.
“We do not need to toll 27 miles for $550 million when 14 miles of general purpose lanes for $100 million solves our problem,” he said.
State officials and project supporters have said that public funds for the project come with strings attached. They say much of the money is available only if the project uses HOT lanes, also known as “managed lanes,” or incorporates a private partner to run the toll lanes.
Asked about that Sunday, Brawley turned to Naas for help explaining. “He knows all the details,” Brawley said. “The $170 million that you hear about, the taxpayers’ money going into the project, that is money that is available for widening I-77. And it does not have to be tolls. It does not have to be the hot lanes to do it.”
Naas said federal tax money allocated to the project “is not tied to HOT lanes.”
Discussion of funding sources quickly degenerated into a complicated mix of acronyms. Naas acknowledged that one block of funding would go to pay for toll equipment. But he also said he believes that another block of funding, from the state’s Mobility Fund, could be used for general purpose lanes.
“The state mobility fund is a merit-based pool, and we have found that toll lanes, yes they are ranked very high on that. But the general purpose lanes also will compete very favorably in that pool as well and we should be able to get mobility funds for it,” Naas said.
Brawley and Naas said several times that there’s at least $100 million, possibly $110 million to build general purpose lanes on the road.
Bill Thunberg of Mooresville, director of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, disagreed. Contacted Sunday night to comment on Brawley’s announcement, he agreed there is $109.5 million in the I-77 widening budget, which includes money for a variety of sub-projects. While some is unrestricted, much does come with strings attached, he said.
“If their contention is that there’s $109 million sitting out there to be used for general purpose lanes, they’re wrong,” Thunberg said.
For example, $24.3 million of the $109.5 million is so-called “mobility funding” that was allocated specifically to HOT lanes project. Another $14 million or so is from a federal program called CMAQ – Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement – that can only be used on the toll-lane project – not for general purpose lanes.
Other money in the total is earmarked for sub-projects that can’t be transferred to build general purpose lanes, Thunberg said.
And there’s a larger issue: congestion on I-77 over the longer term, said Davidson Mayor John Woods. He said Sunday night that two additional general purpose lanes might ease traffic in the next few years, but not in the coming years as the area’s population grows.
“We have a limited right of way in the I-77 corridor. It’s about enough to add two more lanes,” he said, except over the Lake Norman causeways in Cornelius and Davidson, where only one lane is possible. “The question then becomes what happens in five or 10 years or whatever, when the population continues to expand here, and the I-77 corridor is again in a logjam?”
The reason transportation experts have come up with the HOT lanes plans is that it’s the only good long-term solution that guarantees a predictable commute to Charlotte – albeit by using tolls. Woods said he originally though it would be best just to add more general purpose lanes. But given the long-term outlook for more traffic, he said, “Our better choice is to build managed lanes.”
Widen I-77′s campaign to get local officials to change their minds continues Monday night, when group member Vince Winegardner of Davidson and Thunberg will make presentations to the Cornelius Town Board.
Widen I-77 is hoping that town boards around the county will direct their MUMPO representatives to vote “no” on the HOT lanes project on May 22. Cornelius commissioners could decide to vote on such a resolution Monday night. Commissioner Dave Gilroy has opposed the HOT lanes plan and has been urging fellow commissioners to join him.
The Cornelius Transportation Advisory Board, on which Naas sits, voted in January to oppose HOT lanes and to urge town leaders to look at alternatives.
Widen I-77 leaders say they’ll also make a presentation soon to the town board in Stallings, in Union County, which will have a vote at MUMPO.
The question is whether the anti-toll lobbying ultimately can succeed. MUMPO’s votes are weighted by population, with Charlotte having the lion’s share – 16 votes. Huntersville, Matthews, Mecklenburg County, Mint Hill, Monroe, and Union have two votes each; other members – including Davidson and Cornelius – have one vote.
Charlotte and only two other voting members can determine the outcome of any vote.
State officials say tolls are the best way to help pay for the widening project now, instead of waiting 15 years or more for funding through the DOT’s normal process. Besides generating revenues the project, by incorporating tolls, would qualify for federal and state funds not otherwise available for general purpose (non-toll) lanes, officials say.
Carpools, vanpools, motorcycles and buses would be able to use the HOT lanes free. Other drivers would not be required to use the lanes, but would have the option of paying a toll to use them. Tolls would rise as traffic grows, to ensure that the HOT lanes don’t get too crowded.
As a consultant explained at a Lake Norman Transportation Commission meeting in Cornelius, the goal of the project is to guarantee a reliable ride to and from Charlotte, not necessarily to relieve congestion in all the lanes. Tolls would be assessed using an electronic radio-frequency toll system.
The I-77 widening project includes a variety of long-needed and related road improvements, including rebuilding interchanges and bridges. One such project would be the long-awaited replacement of the bridge over I-77 at Exit 30 in Davidson.
The state hopes to pick a private partner this summer. Construction could begin in 2015, and the first stretch of widened road would be open in 2017, NC DOT has said.
DOT officials estimate the project would cost $500 million to $550 million with toll lanes, and only about $50 million less to build general purpose lanes instead. The state expects to put in up to $170 million, mainly from federal funds designated for projects that require toll lanes. The contract with a private partner would be 50 years.
RELATED LINKS AND COVERAGE
April 1, 2013, “Officials make it clear: I-77 widening will happen – with toll lanes.”
Past coverage of HOT lanes on DavidsonNews.net.
NC DOT’s project discussion page, fix77now.blogspot.com – the site has documents and other factual information about the project
MUMPO.org I-77 information page.
Robert Brawley page on NCLeg.net
ROBERT BRAWLEY STATEMENT
Statement by Representative Robert Brawley
Regarding I-77 HOT Lane Proposal
We are here today because new information that I had not seen before has been shared with me. Previously, my position for widening I-77 has been that while I strongly oppose toll roads, the only way we could afford to widen I-77 without delaying all transportation projects in the area was if we tolled I-77. However, over the last couple of days I have had the opportunity to meet with the public and research this issue in much more detail. What I see is that there clearly is a way to widen I-77 without toll lanes.
It is quite clear after further study and review that the NCDOT is taking a $100 million dollar solution and turning it into a $550 million problem. Common sense and fiscal responsibility is what is needed to solve this problem. Now that prioritization of transportation projects have changed, existing taxpayer funds are available, and I have heard the well-warranted concerns of the public, I am taking a new position and I ask other lawmakers and local leaders to do the same.
The problem on I-77 in this region is the bottleneck from Iredell toward Charlotte for approximately 14 miles that is only two lanes wide. We don’t need to add toll lanes for 27 miles all the way into Charlotte to fix this problem. Instead, we can add a lane in each direction. That gives us a 50% increase in capacity for less than $100 million. There is $170 million of taxpayer money available for the HOT lane proposal as it is presented. Therefore, we have the $100 million to add general purpose lanes to the area that needs to be widened. It does not make sense to pay $170 million of taxpayer funds (your money) for a $550 million toll road. In addition, we would be strapped to a 50 year contract with a private, for-profit company.
Why toll 27 miles and redo nine bridges when we can increase capacity by 50% by widening 14 miles and adding two bridges with no toll? We do not need to toll 27 miles for $550 million when 14 miles of general purpose lanes for $100 million solves our problem.
With the new criteria for road projects by the regional planning organization, known as MUMPO, and Governor McCrory’s new transportation plan, widening I-77 with general purpose lanes would be placed high on the priority list for utilizing existing public funds. Our problem with I-77 should be solved by common sense and not grand schemes that place an unfair burden on the public. I ask my fellow legislators to join me in saving the taxpayer funds, moving us forward in a manner that does not force tolls on the public who use I-77.
On May 22, MUMPO will be voting on amending their transportation plan that would enable the NCDOT to move forward with the toll proposal. I ask each city to meet, review all the options – not just the NCDOT’s — and instruct their representative to vote in favor saving the people’s money, who elected them to represent the public’s interests. There have been many meetings about why HOT Lanes are the best or only option, but almost no meetings about other options or why the toll roads are not the best option. It’s time to listen to other options and consider a better solution. We are a representative government. Let the people be heard. Do we solve the problem with $100 million tax dollars or do we add the expenses of time and redoing bridges to accommodate HOT lanes at $550 million? Three of four bidders on the HOT lanes are headquartered outside the U.S. – which to me, is another issue. However, today I want to focus on the issue at hand – which is simply that the toll roads are 1) an unfair burden on the public, 2) they will not ease congestion, and 3) they are not a wise way to spend tax dollars
This issue of widening I-77 can be solved by common sense… and with existing funds that are available right now and today.