CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you've ever tried to drive from Charlotte to Lake Norman or vice versa on I-77 during rush hour, you know the problem. Everyone agrees on the problem.
At about mile marker 22 four lanes narrow to two, creating a bottleneck and a daily pain in the neck for many of the 150,000 people who live near Lake Norman.
"I actually moved my business out of Charlotte to get off of I-77," says Kurt Naas, who leads the group Widen I-77 (
). "It's pretty bad and it's only going to get worse."
But while everyone agrees that the only remaining four-lane stretch of interstate left in Mecklenburg County is too small, there's a raging debate about what to do about it.
Four years ago North Carolina's House Speaker told Steve Crump on WTVI's Carolina Business Review, "I think we have to take a serious look at toll roads".
The I-77 traffic jam sits smack in the middle of Tillis' legislative district, which covers most of Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson, in the northern section of Mecklenburg County.
"What you've got is two quarts of mud in a one pint jar," said Naas.
But while Tillis, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and many local politicians support toll lanes to speed up construction, a fierce group of fiscal conservatives are fighting the tolls.
"It doesn't make any sense," said Naas, who says he is a registered Republican who voted for Tillis three times.
And it's not just about the money, even though the NCDOT has yet to release a firm number for the amount its contractor, Cintra, will charge to ride in the toll lanes, known as HOT lanes for high occupancy toll.
One practical objection that Widen I-77 voices is that construction of new toll lanes would extend for nine miles through a section of I-77 where there is little backup or congestion now, namely the section north of I-85 at about mile marker 13, and running north to the area just after the new intersection with the final arc of I-485 at about mile marker 22.
"We have to tear down and rebuild four bridges just to accommodate toll lanes underneath them," Naas said.
That's because the new toll lanes won't fit under existing bridges. So perfectly good bridges would have to be torn out and rebuilt just to create toll lanes.
"So why spend all that extra money to allow a private company to profit from our misery for the next 50 years," Naas expressed.
Widen I-77 argues that it would be much cheaper to add general purpose lanes where they are needed than build toll lanes where they're not.
The problem is that the state formula for deciding which roads to build first has pushed the I-77 Lake Norman lanes way down the priority list.
NCDOT Secretary Tony Tata told reporters at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, "Because of the questions we've been hearing, I have asked the team to do a hypothetical scoring of it."
But the scoring does not evaluate only the segment of I-77 north of mile marker 22, the segment where the interstate narrows to two lanes.
That brings Kurt Naas back to Speaker Tillis, "I think if we had Speaker Tillis' support we could come up with alternatives that would cost the taxpayer less."
Fiscal conservatives have ripped Tillis over his longstanding support for toll lanes as a new alternative to get roads built – especially along I-77.
"This is not private sector efficiency; what it is is a government sanctioned monopoly," Naas said.
The conservatives connect the dots this way.
Thom Tillis received an award as legislator of the year from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. Now he's a board member of ALEC.
ALEC brings together big corporations with lawmakers who sponsor model legislation that benefits big business.
Cintra, the multinational corporation that's managing the $650 million toll lanes, was a member of ALEC until last year.
Thom Tillis sponsored legislation setting the stage for toll lanes in North Carolina.
"What we really question is his commitment to his constituents," said Naas.
We've tried to reach Thom Tillis for four days by phone calls, email, through the campaign and his Raleigh office at the state legislature. The closest we got was an email referring us to another lawmaker.
Kurt Naas and his group Widen I-77 are holding a public meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at Cornelius Town Hall.
The NCDOT is set to finalize the 50-year deal with Cintra before the end of the year.