by Frank DeLoache

CORNELIUS – After much discussion about what to do about traffic congestion on Interstate 77, state road officials are now leaning toward a big fix – widening the interstate to at least six lanes – three in each direction – all the way to Mooresville, Mayor Jeff Tarte told those attending the town board meeting Monday night, April 4.

And if they can find the funding, N.C. Department of Transportation officials want to take the north-south artery to eight lanes, from Huntersville to Mooresville, Tarte and Town Manager Anthony Roberts said this week.

Tarte and Roberts met Friday, April 1, with Barry Moose, district engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation. Moose told the town officials that “I-77 is on the table,” and state officials “know all four lanes are needed,” referring to two new lanes in both directions.

“They see a huge benefit to tackle it as one project” going all the way to exit 36, which is Mooresville’s main interchange on N.C. 150, Tarte said, quoting Moose. That would require rebuilding and expanding two causeways that carry I-77, one between Cornelius and Davidson and another between Davidson and Mooresville.

Of course, state officials still have to figure out how to pay for such a huge project, Tarte said. But Moose emphasized that state officials don’t see the benefit of any more feasibility studies on other options.

Most recently, north Mecklenburg officials have been moving forward with a smaller patch on the overtaxed thoroughfare – adding a single high occupancy toll lane in each direction.

Moose could not be reached for comment.

Tarte brought other significant news from a different group of officials – Mecklenburg County. After talking to Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Jennifer Roberts, County Manager Harry Jones and others, Tarte said he expects the county to increase tax bills in the coming year.

With a revaluation expected to increase the assessed value of property, county commissioners would have to cut the current tax rate to avoid raising residents’ tax bills – making the revaluation “revenue neutral.”

While commissioners will likely reduce the tax rate some, “I do not think the county will pass a tax-neutral rate,” Tarte said, “which means our taxes will go up.”

Commissioner Karen Bentley, who represents north Mecklenburg, said Roberts does not favor a revenue-neutral stance and will support some increase in property-tax bills. But Bentley said she won’t support any increase.

“I won’t go any higher than revenue neutral,” she said Wednesday.

Tarte said county officials have told him they hope to find extra money to keep community library branches, like the ones in Cornelius and Davidson, open.

A library task force has recommended the county find an additional $2 million in funding next year. That would allow the system’s larger regional branches to open for longer hours while all the community branches could stay open on shorter schedules.

But if the county doesn’t provide the extra money, the task force recommended strengthening the regional libraries and closing some community branches.

Bentley said she hopes to find extra funding for the libraries within the existing budget. But if county officials can’t find $2 million, she will not support the task force’s recommendation to close some community branches. Rather, she favors keeping “the status quo,” leaving regional branch hours the same and keeping all community branches open.

Bentley is skeptical of the task force recommendation to peg library funding to an average of library funding reported by comparable library systems across the country. Such formulas usually don’t work in a budget the size of Mecklenburg’s, she said.

North Mecklenburg residents can tell county officials what they think about the revaluation and county priorities at an April 27 town hall meeting from 7 to 9 p.m. in Cornelius, 21445 Catawba Ave., Tarte said. Roberts, County Manager Jones and Tax Assessor Garrett Alexander plan to attend the meeting.