CORNELIUS – The Lake Norman Chamber’s Feb. 22 Friday Focus meeting started out looking like another back-and-forth chat on the issue of widening Interstate 77 through the use of HOT lanes. That was until the interjecting message of Rep. Charles Jeter sent the room into its first unanimous applause.
Jeter filed House Bill 157 Tuesday afternoon, his first piece of legislation as a North Carolina House Representative, that would permanently prohibit the executive branch from ever transferring money out of the highway funds for non-transportation uses.
"Part of the reason we are in this problem," Jeter said, "is because the Democrats stole from the highway fund left and right."
The bill was written to prevent any governor from having the ability to take money away from road projects.
Point II of the current statute states that the governor has the ability to use funds for "other urgent needs."
"Historcialy that has been broadly utilized to spend on anything and everything by the governor," Jeter said.
Jeter’s bill changes that title from "other urgent needs," to "other urgent road construction or road maintinance needs."
Jeter said, "that if highway 12 on the coast gets washed out, they have a mechanism in place to rebuild it without calling the session back in. That’s reasonable. Going out there and building a global transpark with that money, which is an economic development issue, not a road issue, with highway fund money, is in my opinion intellectually dishonest with what we tell people when they go to the gas pump. My bill will prohibit any governor from ever doing that again."
Jeter said at the Friday Focus meeting, that many in the Lake Norman area expect Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, to bend over and make the widening of I-77 the state’s top priority.
“The argument that he can just arbitrarily put general purpose lanes in here because he is speaker of the house simply isn’t true,” Jeter said. “The flipside to that is that the argument that there absolutely no money, isn’t true either. Like most things, the truth is in the middle.”
Jeter, who serves as the vice chairman on the appropriations subcommittee for transportation and is on the transportation policy committee, asked that all those involved, on both sides of the issue, send him the facts that the have about the I-77 project, so that he can take them to Raleigh and disseminate the truth from fiction.
“I will go to Raleigh on Monday and spend all week fact checking it with everybody,” Jeter said. “trying to get facts so that we can rationally get around the table and understand what we are talking about.”
By Tuesday evening, Jeter said he had only recieved presentations from LNTC and was still waiting on Widen I-77's presentation.
Jeter’s statements came after a presentation by Bill Thunburg of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission and Kurt Naas from the community group Widen I-77, which opposes adding tolls to Lake Norman region of the interstate highway.
“We’re all on the same team. We are all on the same side. We all want the same thing,” Jeter said. “We aren’t listening to each other in this room, but we all want the same thing.”
Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy gave what he said was his board’s perspective.
“These extraordinary, I think, insightful facts,” Gilroy said, “that Widen I-77 has brought to the table in the last couple months, it’s caused a number of us to say, 'Wait a second. Are we really, really sure about this original assumption, that its impossible to have general-purpose lanes?'”
The Cornelius Town Board passed a resolution earlier this year asking the Lake Norman Transportation Commission to re-examine that assumption.
“In some ways, both sides are right,” Gilroy said. “What Kurt has illuminated in the last several months, I think is really more rational and logical but I think, unfortunately, an unrealistic view.”
Chamber President Bill Russell said a lot of people, including members of the Widen I-77 group, have asked what the position of the chamber is on the HOT lanes project.
In 2011, the Lake Norman Chamber, like a lot of elected officials, the LNTC, the Mooresville Chamber and the Charlotte Chamber, came out in support of managed lanes.
Russell said that in the last two years, a lot of new components have been introduced to the managed lanes conversation.
“There was no design build, there was no P3, so a lot of financing and business models of that has changed,” Russell said.
So where does the Chamber sit now?
“Our position kind of mirrors that of the towns,” Russell said. “We are information gathering. Now there has been more information and an actual business model that’s being introduced. But I don’t think many in this room and some of our elected officials have seen the business model and the financing plan.”
Rep. Jeter will speak at the next Friday Focus meeting in March, which will likely focus on the issues of widening I-77.