BOX: What's this about HOT Lanes?
New to the HOT Lanes discussion? Here's a quick summary:
Most everyone in the region agrees that heavy traffic on Interstate 77 merits an expansion of the highway. The N.C. Department of Transportation has discussed for several years a plan that would widen I-77 with the addition of a High Occupancy Toll Lane, or HOT Lane. Drivers choosing to use this express lane would have to pay a toll, the price for which would likely fluctuate depending on traffic conditions. N.C. DOT has estimated it will cost $500 million-$550 million to expand the highway from Charlotte to Mooresville.
The toll lane project is proposed as a public-private partnership, and lanes would be managed by a private company. The contract is expected to be signed later this year.
Widen I-77 is a group primarily made up of Lake Norman-area residents who oppose the HOT lanes, arguing that it would be cheaper to simply add general purpose lanes than implement tolls.
State sentiment: It's HOT lanes or nothing
CORNELIUS – Widen I-77.org, a citizen's activist group, has taken their message to Raleigh in hopes of stopping the proposed toll lane project along Lake Norman.
A handful of members went to Raleigh last month expecting a private conversation with North Carolina’s Speaker of the House Thom Tills, a Lake Norman resident, about the High-Occupancy Toll Lanes proposed for the widening of Interstate 77.
Instead they were led to a room with about 40 people, including state legislators, Lake Norman-area elected officials, N.C. Department of Transportation staff and consultants.
“We thought there was going to be an exchange of ideas between constituents and legislator,” said Kurt Naas, who represented Widen I-77.org in Raleigh along with a few other members. “We didn’t have the exchange of dialogue that we thought we would.”
What the group didn’t know about their trip, is that the same day Widen I-77.org was invited time to speak with Tillis, elected officials from around the state had gathered in Raleigh for Town Hall Day.
Naas said his major takeaway from Raleigh legislators is that Lake Norman residents will either get a toll lane or no widening for 15-20 years.
Jordan Shaw, a spokesperson for Tillis, said "given the schedule for DOT projects and the run rate that we usually see and given what we have heard from DOT officials, that that type of schedule fr this kind of project is probably accurate."
While the Raleigh meeting had a solid showing of Lake Norman-area officials, there was a noticeable absence from Widen I-77.org’s meeting on April 3.
Lake Norman representatives present in Raleigh included Huntersville Commissioner Sarah McAulay, Cornelius Mayor Lynette Rinker, Cornelius Commissioner Cornelius Chuck Travis, Davidson Town Manager Leamon Brice, Davidson Commissioner Rodney Graham, Davidson Commissioner Brian Jenest, Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell and Lake Norman Transportation Commission Executive Director Bill Thunberg.
Only Russell attended the Widen I-77.org meeting.
"(Tillis) is supportive of the conversation that this has started because it's an important issue," said Shaw. "He understands the emotions on both sides. He knows that it is important for economic development, regional competitiveness and for that area to have sufficient infrastructure. Given the fact that this option would not require new tax dollars and not require those who did not choose to use the hot lanes to pay extra for them, that this may be a viable option and certainly an option worth discussing."
Two Huntersville commissioners, Jeff Neely and Danny Phillips, and one Iredell County commissioner, Ken Robertson, were the only elected officials that came to listen to citizens at Widen I-77.org’s April 3 meeting.
“In Iredell County, we already said no, we pulled it out of our transportation approval process,” Robertson said. “Once we asked questions about the Red Line, very quickly, other boards started to challenge some of it as well and I think that’s just what we have to get going here as well.”
Getting the priorities straight
Naas’ presentation focused on the project's priority rank of 93.
The Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization – known as MUMPO – handles transportation planning for the greater Charlotte region, particularly in Mecklenburg and Union countis. The organization will soon be changing both its name and the way that it ranks road projects, as well as expanding into other nearby counties. The group is scheduled to re-do the system with which they establish project priorities by May 2014.
The 50-year contract to build HOT lanes along I-77, however, is scheduled to be signed by September.
“Doesn’t it make sense to wait four months for the new numbers rankings, before we sign a 50-year contract?” Naas said. “We delayed I-485 by a few months. That delayed the whole widening by 10 years and we don’t want to do that. Big difference, here we are staring down the barrel of a 50-year contract.”
Naas went on to say that even after implementing a new project ranking, there is no guarantee that MUMPO willinclude a project where I-77 is widened with general-purpose lanes.
“They just may rank the I-77 toll lanes project and that’s it,” Naas said. “That ranking may not even see the light of day.”
Tell leaders what you think
MUMPO met April 10 (Wednesday) at the Central Piedmont Community College-Merancas Campus in Huntersville to discuss the widening project. The group will also meet at 5-7 p.m. April 11 (today) at Oaklawn Academy, 1810 Oaklawn Ave., Charlotte to continue the I-77 discussion.
MUMPO enlisted a 30-day public comment period beginning March 23 to receive input on the 2012-2018 Transportation Improvement Program with regard to the proposed widening of I-77.
Visit www.mumpo.org/i-77 for detailed information about MUMPO’s program and to share your thoughts.
The public comment period ends April 22.
Visit www.wideni77.org for more information, including a list of Lake Norman elected officials and town staff that are for or against the HOT lanes project on I-77.