I-77 toll lanes approved despite angry crowd’s objections

I-77 toll lanes approved despite angry crowd’s objections

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by JOE MARUSAK / The Charlotte Observer

WCNC.com

Posted on May 22, 2013 at 10:21 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 22 at 8:42 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- An angry crowd of Interstate 77 toll lane opponents booed and shouted down members of the agency that sets Charlotte area road priorities Wednesday night after they were given 10 minutes to say why they feel tolls from Charlotte to Mooresville are a bad idea.

“That is shameful!” Mark Neroni of Cornelius shouted to members of the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization. “This is a democracy. That is unfair.”

“Let us speak, Let us speak,” the crowd of about 40 Lake Norman area residents continually chanted before they filed out of the meeting room at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.

MUMPO later voted unanimously to amend the agency’s 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan and 2012-2018 Transportation Improvement Program to include the $550 million toll lane project.

The vote means the N.C Department of Transportation will now move forward with the planned toll lanes. The only way the project could be stopped is if the General Assembly in Raleigh steps in and votes to reverse its 2012 approval of the project.

Cornelius commissioner Chuck Travis, who serves on MUMPO, said the I-77 toll lane project will serve as the model for similar public-private partnerships to finance highway expansions elsewhere across the state given limited public dollars.

The state intends to hire a contractor in August to finance, design, build and operate the lanes.

MUMPO’s voting members are elected officials from Charlotte and surrounding cities and towns and Mecklenburg and Union counties. A state Department of Transportation official also gets a vote. Because of its size, Charlotte’s vote counts for 16 of the 38 votes on the panel.

The crowd’s angry reaction during the meeting prompted David Howard, Charlotte City Council’s MUMPO representative, to call for security. “This is not respectful to the process at all,” Howard told the crowd.

Members of the audience began shouting at the panel after Huntersville commissioner Sarah McAulay, who chairs MUMPO, approached the audience to say they’d have only 10 minutes total to state their case.

When toll-lane opponent Kurt Naas of Cornelius told the panel that everyone in the crowd deserved a chance to speak, McAulay told him, “Your time is up.”

Naas founded Widen I-77, a Lake Norman area citizens group opposed to the tolls.

Before the meeting, toll lane opponents gathered in the Government Center lobby and said they were expecting MUMPO to approve the highway project.

“I’m an upper middle class kind of person who can’t afford to pay those tolls, so who can?” IT consultant Richard John, 53, of Cornelius, said.

Top state transportation officials have said North Carolina lacks the money to expand I-77 with general purpose lanes unless drivers are willing to wait at least another 25 years.

State Rep. Robert Brawley, R-Iredell, who opposes the toll lane project, said the state should shift the $170 million it plans to put toward the toll lane project and build general purpose lanes.

He said he is gathering support among legislators to reverse the General Assembly’s 2012 vote in favor of tolls.

The project calls for adding two toll lanes on northbound and southbound I-77 between Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One toll lane would continue in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36 (N.C. 150) in Mooresville. No toll rates have been set; state officials have said the rate would vary depending on congestion.

Construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2014, with some segments opening in 2016.

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