The Charlotte City Council, after hearing about 45 people voice their opposition to the addition of toll lanes on Interstate 77 north of Uptown, voted Monday evening in favor of continuing with the project.
The move most likely means Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles, the council’s representative on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, will follow the council’s directive and vote at a Jan. 20 CRTPO meeting to reaffirm the organization’s commitment to toll lane projects, including the hotly contested construction of toll lanes from Brookshire Freeway to exit 36 in Iredell County.
The council approved its directive by 7-4 margin. Those voting against the proposal were Democrat Council Member At Large Claire Fallon, Democrats LaWana Mayfield of District 3 and Al Austin of District 2, and Kenny Smith, a Republican from District 6.
With a 46 percent share of the vote, Charlotte holds a near-majority pull on the CRTPO vote. Gov. Pat McCrory called on the CRTPO to take up the issue last month after several local lawmakers asked him to scuttle the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s $648 million contract with Spanish company Cintra Infraestructuras to build the roads.
Those speaking out against the project Monday called it elitist and criticized terms of the 50-year contract, which includes requiring taxpayers to compensate Cintra subsidiary I-77 Mobility Partners for lost revenue stemming from any addition of general purpose lanes. Many proposed simply cancelling the contract, which N.C. DOT has said would have major repercussions, including up to $300 million in penalties.
“You can vote on cancellation of this contract,” N.C. Rep. Charles Jeter told the council.
Mecklenburg County At Large Commissioner Pat Cotham agreed.
“I ask you not to punt. Take this one project out (of the regional plan),” she told councilmembers before they voted. “The governor needs a scapegoat and you are his target.”
But Mayor Jennifer Roberts disagreed, having told the standing-room-only crowd at the outset that the council vote would be limited to whether or not to continue backing a regional plan that includes toll lane projects — not only the I-77 public-private partnership, but others being built by the state along Independence Boulevard, a segment of Interstate 485, and further south on Interstate 77.
Throughout the evening, several council members appeared to feel hamstrung by the task before them. Republican Councilman Ed Driggs of District 7 said at the council’s pre-meeting dinner that he didn’t appreciate being forced to make a decision that would jeopardize other projects by singling out one.
And Fallon said the decision to continue with the toll roads on I-77 had been “dumped in our lap.”
Several councilmembers asked N.C. DOT Secretary Nick Tennyson if there was any room for renegotiating the contract with Cintra, which calls for $95 million in taxpayer funds and up to an additional $75 million if, according to the DOT, “toll revenue is dramatically less than project estimates.”
Tennyson said he thought the contract might need revision and was asked by newly elected Council Member At Large Julie Eiselt, a Democrat, what the impetus for renegotiation would be.
Tennyson said he believed Cintra would be interested in renegotiating because future toll lanes on the southern portion of I-77 “would probably be a 3P,” or public-private partnership.
Tennyson added that the state was under no obligation to cancel the contract even if the CRTPO voted against continuing with its current strategy.
At the public hearing, a few individuals spoke in favor of the Cintra deal, including local resident David Tobin, who said it was necessary to relieve congestion in the short term. Charlotte Chamber President and Chief Executive Bob Morgan, last among the 50 or so speakers at the public hearing, said the local population is expected to double in the next 20 to 30 years, and that it “is imperative to find creative and aggressive ways to invest in transportation infrastructure.” He added that the region’s transportation policy was “10 years in the making,” and had been supported by the area’s leaders.
The project includes building one toll lane in each direction from exit 11 near Uptown to exit 36 in Iredell County, and converting an existing high-occupancy vehicle lane between Brookshire and Exit 28 into a toll lane. Cintra will set the cost of using the toll lanes, raising and lowering the cost according to demand. Construction is slated for completion in 2018, N.C. DOT said.