Subhead: Tolls on I-77 continue to be a concern for Huntersville residents
HUNTERSVILLE – Residents say the N.C. Department of Transportation lacks transparency when it comes to the potential Interstate 77 toll lanes costs, access and traffic flow.
N.C. Rep. Charles Jeter led a town hall meeting June 23 at Huntersville Town Hall to allow citizens to voice their concerns about the recurrent I-77 toll lanes issue.
The NCDOT and Cintra Infrastructures, S.A., had planned to sign an agreement June 25 to implement 26 miles of managed lanes on I-77 from Charlotte to Mooresville for the next 50 years.
Residents at the meeting urged the Huntersville House member several times to delay the agreement until they are given all the answers to their questions.
The anti-toll group Widen I77 says released NCDOT documents predict toll lanes from Mooresville to Charlotte could reach $20 – but Jeter says $20 is not factual.
“The reality is that there are a lot of moving parts in the plan,” he said. “There are real issues we have to consider. $20 is the worst-case scenario."
Based on a mathematical model, the average comes to $2 a trip, Jeter said.
Attendee Chuck Suter said the lower and middle classes will be hurt from the costs of the tolls because Cintra can determine the fee.
He also expresses concern a toll project could jeopardize public safety. He questions whether toll roads will halt the evacuation process if a terrorist attack occurs or something happens at the nearby McGuire Nuclear Station.
“DOT has to come to us and say we have a problem with evacuation from McGuire, but no one has said that,” Jeter said. “I have three young kids. I understand.”
While some residents ask for widening I-77 with general-purpose lanes instead of toll roads, Jeter said building general-purpose lanes are not possible now.
He said state legislators cannot decide to build general-purpose lanes. He also said general-purpose lanes cannot pass because earmarks have been eliminated in addition to the fact they did not rank high enough on the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s rating system.
One resident suggested alternatives to funding transportation projects, but Jeter said toll road alternatives are local concerns.
“The state cannot pass that,” Jeter said. “It is not permissible under the law.”
Keith Bradford, husband of Jeter’s Democrat opponent Robin Bradford, worries tolls will force everyday drivers and truckers on back roads, which he said put children at higher risks for getting injured or hit. He wants the town to take the Red Line transit system seriously.
According to Jeter, the state has no mechanism to mandate the Red Line.
One resident spoke out to Jeter, “You don’t have all the answers. You need to listen to the people before this goes through. It needs to be delayed.”
But Jeter could not promise a specific outcome. For him, it has not been easy process.
“Road money has been wasted for decades,” he said. “All I can do is address things moving forward."
Jeter said transportation officials and legislators are looking at changing ways to build roads and how funding works to build those roads.
He also finds it useful to redesign districts to let more voices be heard on particular issues.
"We need to go to a computer-based redistricting," Jeter said. "I believe this system will allow for more competitive districts between (Republicans and Democrats) and will encourage more voter participation."
Overall, residents feel there are better, more efficient ways to fund our road systems.
“We need to know more. We are not ready. We have got to put this off and let the people decide instead of Raleigh deciding,” Suter said. “Cintra has billions of dollars who steal our roads for profit.”
Other points of interest discussed at the meeting revolved around House Bill 157, Medicaid and teacher salaries.
• House Bill 157 was passed after Jeter’s first year of being elected to represent District 92. The bill prevents fuel tax proceeds from being spent on non-transportation uses. This bill is relevant when talking about toll road taxes, something residents say is not the way to fund future transportation projects.
• A resident was confused as to why Jeter would not expand Medicaid in North Carolina.
“Medicaid is complicated, personal and a human discretion. It’s a challenging issue,” Jeter said.
Jeter said the House doesn’t touch Medicaid, whereas the Senate budget cut out Medicaid programs.
“People are dying and the working poor are falling through holes. It’s costing our state money and jobs not to expand Medicaid,” a resident said said. “We need to offer Medicaid to these people that need to go to the emergency room.”
Mayor Jill Swain said legislators need to talk with local mayors to truly understand what goes on in small municipalities.
Jeter agreed with Swain, saying officials should speak with each other and that new elected officials do not have the experience and decide on bills without knowing every consequence.
• Teachers have always felt they have been well underpaid. Jeter said teachers in the state will get an average 5.8 percent raise across the board. He said the House reinstates tenure, reinstates master’s pay and does away with the 25 percent pay.
“Not any teacher is cut in our budget,” Jeter said. “We try to talk with teachers to see real concerns.”
Teachers are paid more through increased lottery revenue. Jeter wants to capture more of this money, considering 15 percent of lottery money has been used to pay teachers for six years.
“We have been doing this since 2008,” Jeter said. I am 100 percent confident lottery money will work. We budget items to cut out for more teacher money.”