CORNELIUS — It looks like a little tussle is brewing over the fast-track plan to widen Interstate 77 north of Charlotte’s city limits and ease congestion on the roadway.
In a special meeting Thursday, the town of Cornelius’ Transportation Advisory Board threw a speed bump in the way of an otherwise widely accepted North Carolina Department of Transportation plan to help finance the added asphalt with privately operated high-occupancy toll lanes, which would be free for vehicles with multiple passengers, with single drivers paying cash.
The board unanimously backed a resolution calling the HOT lanes plan — which the DOT says could quicken the widening of I-77 by 20 years — an unfair “financial burden” on Lake Norman-area residents.
The resolution, which also argues that HOT lanes would not necessarily ease congestion, could put a similar, tabled resolution back on the agenda of the town’s Board of Commissioners.
DOT’s $300 million plan calls for local, state and federal governments to partner with private, for-profit investors in widening the interstate, with the investors pocketing the tolls for up to 50 years.
For developers and builders hoping to keep fast-growing north Mecklenburg County a construction hot spot, the anti-HOT lanes sentiment could be a monkey wrench in a plan that might help the area continue to be attractive to homeowners.
Cornelius Commissioner Chuck Travis said Friday that his constituents need to get used to the idea of tolls or they can forget seeing a less-congested route home from Charlotte in the next couple of decades.
“No one loves tolls,” Travis said. “I don’t love tolls. But if it means we can get this done without waiting 20 or 25 years, then I’m for it. And that’s what tolls mean. Our state is broke. It isn’t going to happen any other way.”
Travis is also chairman of the Lake Norman Transportation Committee, which lobbies state and federal funding sources for Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville and Mooresville.
But Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy, who introduced the tabled resolution that he hopes to reintroduce at Monday’s town board meeting, begged to differ anyway.
“The widening of I-77 is the top (highway) priority in all of North Carolina. Nobody’s disputing that,” Gilroy said Friday. “And nobody is disputing that doing it in five years instead of 25 isn’t a good thing for a 35-year-old stretch of I-77.
“But what we’re saying is that the ‘It’s 20 more years or it’s HOT lanes’ choice is not a fact. It’s an opinion. What we’re saying is: Is there an alternative way for the state to fund this? For God’s sake, is there not an alternative to paying a $4 to $5 fare for the next 50 years every time you’re stuck in traffic?”
No-toll alternatives mentioned at Thursday’s meeting included pulling together additional state and federal funds for the widening project and asking the towns along the route to chip in.
Travis pooh-poohed those alternatives. There are no state or federal dollars for the project, he said, and putting local tax money into a federal highway is an unlikely scenario.
But, most important, Travis said, the HOT lanes plan is what got the widening of I-77 onto the radar screen of the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization — known as MUMPO — which prioritizes transportation projects for state and federal funding. Without the HOT lanes plan, the I-77 widening project north of Charlotte came in at No. 92 in MUMPO’s list of priorities.
“I-77 was not even in the top 50,” Travis said. “What moved it to the top was the idea of the public-private partnership on the HOT lanes. If we take that back, if we take that off the table, this is not going to get done anytime soon. If this resolution that is coming up before the Board of Commissioners says anything like we should abandon the HOT lanes, I’m not supporting that.”
In addition to Thursday’s Transportation Advisory Board resolution and the possibility of another from the Board of Commissioners, a grassroots citizens group called Widen I-77, which formed in November, is another locus of complaint about the HOT lanes plan.
The Widen I-77 group will hold a community meeting at 7 p.m. Jan. 14 in Cornelius Town Hall, 21445 Catawba Ave.