Tuesday, July 22, 2014

HOT Lanes: Disagree with Davidson Mayor John Woods? You are a liar or a scaredy cat!

We've recently been pretty rough on Davidson Mayor John Woods.  But with all his recent squashing of debate at Davidson Town Hall and colluding with the other North Mecklenburg Mayors to push the much maligned HOT Lanes project forward, it's criticism well earned.

However, his most recent quote in the Lake Norman Citizen takes the cake.  It shows an utter disdain for anyone who disagrees with him whether they be a citizen or a fellow elected official.  Referring to those who oppose the HOT Lanes plan for I77 Mayor Woods says...

 
If you ever disagree with Mayor Woods, you can be sure that he'll toss out the "misinformation" accusation at the earliest opportunity.  Tellingly, this accusation is never accompanied by exactly what the misinformation was or what the correct information should be.  He sort of just throws it out there and lets it hang in the air to color the debate.  It's nothing but a polite way to call someone a liar without using the word. 

Ironically, he has a long history of using this divisive tactic on major local issues where he's the one who turned out to be wrong.

In 2012 regarding the now sidetracked Red Line commuter rail project, John Woods had this to say in DavdisonNews.net  ...


While John Woods may think the debate is over regarding commuter rail, the actual owners of the track, Norfolk Southern, obviously would disagree.  The rail road company recently put the kibosh on track sharing in the corridor which effectively kills the project unless hundreds of millions in new funding appears, or the State gives them a sweetheart deal on their permanent use of alternative track currently owned by the North Carolina Rail Road.  Additionally, Mayor Woods himself recently said at a Community Chat in Davidson that the current financing plan for the Red Line - the financing plan he was defending in the above quoted article - is "dead"

Were those opposing the Red Line in 2012 spreading misinformation? Or were they right?

Let's go even further back in time to 2007 and we'll find, John Woods saying this to DavdisonNews.net about the oh so successful Mi-Connection deal he helped push through.


For those in Davidson who have had to suffer with the fallout of the terrible decision to enter the cable business, this one should be particularly bile inducing.  This decision pushed and supported by John Woods nearly bankrupted the town.  It has cost the town dearly in lost opportunities as millions upon millions are poured into the operation to bail out the politicians who foisted it on the citizens.

Some of the Davidson locals who opposed this disaster had experience in high finance, technology, and telecommunications.  One such person, former Mi-Connection Chairman, John Venzon, opposed the decision to create the company, but he then had the courage to step in and spend years cleaning up the mess John Woods helped create.

Again, were those opposed to this decision spreading misinformation, or were they right?

So, back to the widening of I77...

Mayor Woods has recently become the face of the HOT Lanes project among local elected officials.   He is the project's most vocal champion, and so the "misinformation" accusations start flying.  This time however, he's taking the rhetoric one step further claiming other leaders have somehow become "scared" by HOT Lanes opponents - by people who are simply asking questions and demanding information about a project that will impact their lives for decades.

Let's be clear.  The other elected officials who are questioning the project aren't scared.  They are doing their jobs to protect the citizens who elected them - a job that Mayor Woods has failed at repeatedly in the past.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Reprise - I77 Expansion: An Alternate Plan

In light of recent developments on the I77 project as well as the likely demise of the Red Line commuter rail project (unless the State hands over permanent control of a chunk of the NCRR to Norfolk Southern), it seems like a good time to reprise a transportation alternative for the Lake Norman region first mentioned in these pages a year and a half ago. Proponents of the HOT lanes project have often falsely proclaimed that those opposed to HOT lanes are philosophically opposed to government action  and have proposed no viable alternatives.  In truth, opponents are just opposed to bad ideas.  With Commissioners slated to meet with the NCDOT at Monday's Cornelius Town Board meeting to get answers on the HOT Lanes contract, it may be valuable to keep in mind alternate possible scenarios to meet our transportation needs.



I-77 Expansion: An Alternate Plan
(originally published February 6, 2013)
The State position on widening I-77 boils down to this.  HOT Lanes via a Public Private Partnership (P3) is the only plan that works.  There is no funding to do it any other way - especially with general purpose lanes. 

That's their story and they are sticking to it.
What has not been explained clearly to the public is what exactly has been worked through before coming to this decision.  Clearly, there could be other ideas that could work.  Yes, there may be trade-offs, but there certainly could be an alternative plan that would relieve the worst congestion, meet improved mass transit capabilities, meet criteria that would ostensibly improve air quality, and likely qualify for the various funding pots dedicated to managed lanes - all without locking the State into a 50 year toll project.  
 
Let's look at one possible scenario. What if the State...
  • broke the project into phases to make the costs more manageable. 
  • got creative on maximizing usage of the available capacity.
  • accessed all possible funding mechanisms.
Here's how this could work:
Phase 1: Now
  • Extend the existing HOV lanes up to Exit 36.
  • Allow limited use of the HOV lane to Hybrid an/or ILEV vehicles for a fee.
  • Implement a coordinated carpool/SLUG program to encourage more use of the HOV lane
  • Enhance the Express Bus service from Exit 36 to Charlotte.
Phase 2: 25-30 Year Plan
  • Expand 77 again with a third general purpose lane north of Exit 23 to Exit 30 by building a new HOV lane and converting the current HOV lane to general purpose.  
  • Widen any overpasses as needed at that time.
How to pay for it?
  • Since many of the existing pools of money are restricted to "managed lanes" the expansion of the single HOV lane in Phase 1 should qualify.  Converting the HOV lane in Phase 2 to a GP lane would/should not be an invalidation of the agreement around the original funding for managed lane in Phase 1 as long as the State made the Phase 2 lane HOV.  There would still be the same HOV capacity.
  • Charge a $100 per year fee for special plates to any Hybrid/ILEV vehicle that wanted unlimited access to the HOV lane.  This type of fee is done in places like Virginia and Florida as examples.  Yes $100/yr would be much higher than in those states, but it would certainly be less than paying a toll every day for high users of the proposed HOT lanes in the current plan.  The state could manage the number of plates issued to ensure the capacity of the HOV lane is not overloaded.  However, maximizing the use of this lane would free capacity on the GP lanes and make all lanes flow more freely.
  • Reprioritize Mecklenburg 1/2 cent transit tax money for the Red Line to the HOV lane.  "high-occupancy vehicle facilities" are authorized valid expenditures as part of the bill allowing the transit tax passed in 1998.  This is a valid pool of money that has never even been mentioned in the HOT lane discussion.  It's a sacred cow we can no longer afford.
Pros/Cons
  • Pro: The State says there is no money for widening I-77 with general purpose lanes for decades. This plan gives the State that time while allowing for the relief of the immediate traffic congestion in the Lake Norman area.
  • Pro: Same number of total lanes at end of Phase 2.
  • Pro: The immediate costs would be significantly less.
  • Pro: There would be all of the transit and carpooling enhancements of the HOT plan.
  • Pro: No locking in the State to a 50 year contract via a P3.
  • Pro: No tolls, but still a revenue stream from special plates users to partially fund future expansion.
  • Pro: More flexibility in future expansion.  If Phase 2 warrants it at that point in time, the lane built in future decades could also be a manage HOV lane instead of  a GP lane.  (Not preferable, but an option nonetheless.)
  • Pro: Quicker construction in Phase 1
  • Con: Could just move the current bottleneck down to Charlotte.
  • Con: Does not address Charlotte's issues around I-277.
  • Con: There is no guarantee that Phase 2 money is available decades from now.
  • Con:  It does not guarantee a travel time under the absolute worst conditions like HOT.
  • Con: Two construction projects over time.
So the question is this.  If a plan like the one outlined here is workable, do the Pros outweigh the Cons and should the cost of addressing those Cons be paid only by Lake Norman commuters via the proposed tolls of the State's HOT Lane plan?

What do we get instead of answers this question?  We get municipal officials meeting behind closed doors with consultants this past Monday to see presentations on why the Sate P3 HOT plan is the best option. 

See HOT Lanes: Municipalities Exert Influence with NCDOT on Monday?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

North Meck Mayors + Speaker Thom Tillis (aka The HOT Lanes Bucket Brigade)

When the I77 HOT Lanes issue once again caught fire two weeks ago with the release of new information from NCDOT on potential toll rates, things got hot around North Mecklenburg among elected officials as well.

As reported here last week, Davidson's Town Board declined to have a special meeting to discuss the issue.  What may be even more interesting is the amount of water carrying done by the North Mecklenburg Mayors with some help thrown in by NC House Speaker/Republican US Senate Candidate, Thom Tillis.  Together, Mayors John Woods, Jill Swain and Chuck Travis - along with Speaker Tillis - formed a bucket brigade to put out the flames.

aShortChronicle obtained several emails outlining how the North Mecklenburg Mayors took the lead in attempting to stem the revolt brewing among the towns' Commissioners.  Even with their efforts, 9 of the 16 Commissioners ultimately signed a letter to Governor McCrory and NCDOT requesting a delay in signing the Commercial Close for the project - a request that was ultimately ignored.

As part of Mayor Woods's response to the special meeting request in Davidson, he indicated he would reach out to his fellow "regional mayors".  These emails appear to be the result of that effort to squelch the "hoopla" caused by the "well organized anti-group" - Mayor Woods's words to describe those opposing tolls.
 
After a weekend of activity, Monday evening Mayor Travis from Cornelius sent the below message to the Mayors of Davidson, Huntersville, and Mooresville in response to a message from Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain. 

Notice how the release of more information on the I77 HOT Lanes project is described as "non-relevant" and "outdated".  Mayor Swain even calls it "old news".  If it's such "old news" why is it that just about every news outfit in the region and state is just now reporting on it?  When the Stantec report supposedly wasn't "old news" in 2012 it certainly did not get much public attention.  Maybe this "old news" was communicated to the Mayors in one of the closed door meetings with consultants like this one specifically designed to avoid public meetings law?  In a separate email, Davidson town manager, Leamon Brice, laments about the NCDOT not giving them a heads up this information was coming out.  Truly "old news" would not cause such concern.

Also, notice how Mayor Swain dumps this project squarely in Speaker/US Senate Candidate Thom Tillis's lap saying "this is their project, and by God, let them take ownership."

Well, apparently the Speaker did just that.

See the below email just a few hours later from Cornelius Mayor Travis.  This is on a separate email thread that includes the Speaker (with everyone using their elected office email accounts this time).


Notice the repeated references to text messages with the Speaker, and the Speaker's apparent indication that Tarte is "Ok".  That would seem to be a reference to Senator Jeff Tarte.  The next day Senator Tarte would tell the Charlotte Observer that a legislative review would be conducted before the final, final, we really mean it this time contract is signed with Cintra later this year.  This request for review was done "with the support of legislative leaders".
 
While we should all be glad an additional review is going to take place, the legislature has had opportunities to force a real review - aka a VOTE - on specific toll road projects.  That was in the form of HB 267 last year.  Read these stories to get a refresher on how the Legislature avoided going on record - H267: George Orwell Comes to Raleigh AND H267: Redux - NC House really, really, really doesn't want to vote on tolling you.  With Senator Tarte and other leaders still strong supporters of the project, it's hard to see any review at this point as anything but a bit of kabuki theater.
 
Then finally, Monday night there's this desperate plea from Mayor Woods to the Davidson Town Board.  It's an obvious reference to the letter the nine area Commissioners were contemplating sending to the Governor and NCDOT.  He is all but begging them not to sign it.
 
 
After once again smearing citizens who oppose HOT Lanes by calling them "naysayers", Mayor Woods attempts to sway Commissioners by alluding to possible participation in a "transit" project - for those here in North Meck that's an obvious reference to the Red Line Commuter Rail - a project that can best be described as "his baby".  He makes this statement even though as Chair of the Red Line Task Force he knows that less than 48 hours later at the Wednesday Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting it would be announced Norfolk Southern has all but killed the Red Line project with its latest announcement that takes track sharing off the table.  Why he decided to tie these two projects together is anyone's guess.  When we reported on the rumored linkage here last year, there was definite push back against such insinuations.  (In any event, Mayor Woods was off to Raleigh this week to see if he could save the Red Line.)
 
The irony of all this effort to stop a letter from nine Commissioners to the Governor and put out a sudden wildfire?  The letter had already been sent a few hours earlier.  It went out late Monday afternoon.
 
As the I77 HOT Lanes project moves forward, it's likely the "Bucket Brigade" (aka the North Mecklenburg Mayors and Speaker Tillis) will be called back into action. 
 
We'll be watching.
 
Bonus Observation:  The passing the buck on this issue continues. In this week's issue of The Lake Norman Citizen there is an article on HOT Lanes. (link not available)  According to Huntersville Rep Charles Jeter, there's nothing, just nothing the General Assembly can do at this point.  Of course, Rep Jeter also voted against giving the NCGA the authority to vote on specific toll projects back during the debate on H276.  Read the H267 links for the details on that.
 
Rep Jeter repeatedly says this issue is now with the "executive branch" - meaning Governor McCrory and NCDOT. 
 
The response back from the "executive branch" to the 9 Commissioners' letter?  Crickets...nothing...nada.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

How Davidson Failed to Have a Special Meeting on HOT Lanes

There's been a lot of activity and swirl around the I77 HOT lanes project the past week - activity generated by the release of additional information from NCDOT - prior to Thursday's signing of the Commercial Close of the deal.

Here in Davidson much of that activity was around the request for a Special Meeting of Davidson's Town Board to discuss seeking a possible delay in signing the Commercial Close on the project until this new information could be clarified.  The need for the special meeting (if one was going to be had) stemmed at least in part from a post on this site last week.  Since we reported that this special meeting was not going to be held, aShortChronicle has obtained emails from the Town of Davidson detailing how that decision was reached.

There is much more in the documents received than the below set of emails, and it does appear there will be a sincere effort to hold a joint meeting with NCDOT and other area elected officials - possibly in early July 7th in Cornelius. Also, as part of the documents received, a list of detailed questions was compiled primarily by Commissioner Anderson and submitted for response to NCDOT.   Both of these are very good things towards getting clarification and updated information.

As for how Davidson's Board decided to not have a special meeting on the subject, that's a different matter.  There is definitely some room for improvement there.  Below are the relevant email selections on that.

Emails in time sequence starting with Comm Cashion's original request.
 
 Comm Jenest's response to Comm Cashion's original request...

Comm Fuller's response to Comm Cashion's original request...

 
Mayor Woods's response to Comm Cashion's original request...


Comm Graham's response to Comm Cashion's original request...

Comm Jenest's response to Comm Graham...

Comm Anderson's response to Mayor Woods (There was no direct response to Comm Cashion's initial request in the documents received)...

Without commenting too much on the individual responses, it appears that Mayor Woods had the strongest objection to having a special meeting to discuss this issue of a delay.  The extensive use of bold and underlining in his response being the clear indication of that.  Readers are strongly encouraged to go back and read that one a second time paying attention to the tone of it.  His frustration at even being asked for a meeting and having this conversation is palpable.

As for the Commissioner emails, readers can decide for themselves who gave this issue the most thought.

We'll leave our comments at that on the responses to the special meeting request.  We here at aShortChronicle would not want to be accused (again) of spreading misinformation or engaging in hyperbole.

Bonus Observation: Davidson's adopted Rules of Procedure require the Mayor or any three commissioners to call a special meeting.  This appears to be in conflict with the North Carolina general statute GS 161A-71 governing these meetings. That statute says the Mayor, the Mayor Pro-Tem, or any two commissioners can call a special meeting.  If Davidson was following the General Statute on this issue, both alternatives for who can call a special meeting were met.  Commissioner Beth Cashion is Mayor Pro-Tem and Commissioner Stacey Anderson provided the second needed request.

To eliminate the kind of heavy-handed response exhibited here by the Mayor against reasonable requests from Commissioners to call these meetings if needed, the Board should update their rules of procedure to be in line with State requirements.

Updated: Spin Continues by NCDOT on I77 HOT Lanes Contract (right up until closing)

The spin masters over at NCDOT are at it again with the most recent excuse as to why HOT lane contractor, Cintra, won't release total amounts prior to signing the contract.

The reason?  Effectively, the answer is "we always do it this way."

According to NCDOT....

"Bids are not required to be released until an actual agreement is signed so it's nothing unique to this particular project."

In this case toll rates are part of the "bid".

Unfortunately for the NCDOT, there is something unique about this project.  It is a variable rate tolling project - the first in North Carolina!

Listen, the whole point of a tolling project is to pass through the cost to the end user.  In other projects the NCDOT is effectively the end user, and they are privy to the details around cost.  In a tolling project the end-user is the commuter and not releasing these details is forcing them to accept a product without knowing the cost.

Update:  And the spin continued right up until the day the NCDOT signed the commercial close on the project today.  A sad day for our state and for residents of Lake Norman in particular.  How do you like being treated as guinea pigs?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fuzzy Math Continues on HOT Lanes

It's not surprising that once the information NCDOT possessed on the projected costs of the I77 HOT became public, that the bureaucracy would go into full fledged spin mode.  That appears to be what happened yesterday as the date for signing the 50 year contract with the Spanish contracting firm, Cintra, looms later this week.

One could expect that to happen when the story went statewide stating roundtrip tolls would be in the $20/day range when the new lanes open.

WBT radio reported Monday some unnamed source from NCDOT saying "the tolls would end up being substantially lower - about $2 per trip".

$2 versus $10?  Reeeeeeaallly?  That does sound like a bargain!

But is it realistic?  Here are a few other numbers.

How many cars per day would need to pay $4 round trip on the HOT lanes to just cover the interest on the financing and give Cintra any sort of ROI?  To keep it simple, the below chart combines Cintra ROI and the financing interest rate and applies the same percentage to both.  Since these are likely going to be Triple-B bonds and Cintra as a private company probably demands a greater ROI than the below chart states, these numbers for required round trips per day are likely low.

Note: This is for the interest only.  No payoff of the bond principle or return of the capital.



Who knows?  Maybe this is what Cintra is planning on doing, but if so we can likely expect the same result as they are getting on their toll road in Texas.  See here for the story published just this past Saturday on that debacle.

What's more troubling is that Cintra won't release the details of their supposedly updated study on usage and toll rates until after the contract is signed.  According to this Time Warner report..."Cintra's most recent study on toll costs with revised estimates won't be released until the company signs the contract"

Channeling your best Nancy Pelosi, please say "we have to sign the contract before we know what's in it."

We all know how well that approach works out.

Monday, June 23, 2014

In NC-98 Race, Natasha Marcus Racks Up Support from Several Davidson Board Members

Davidson resident and Democratic Party NC-98 House Candidate Natasha Marcus is holding a fundraiser Tuesday night at the Wooden Stone gallery on South Main Street.  Below is the flyer for the event.

Sponsors for the event include several members of Davidson's Board - Commissioners Rodney Graham, Jim Fuller, and Brian Jenest as well as Mayor John Woods. 
  
Just thought readers might want to know who many of their local officials are supporting in this race.


Bonus Observation: This event happens to be at the same time as the usual Davidson Board work sessions. Those work sessions are on Summer hiatus, but this time could have been used to hold the requested Special Meeting on HOT lanes desired by Commissioners Cashion and Anderson - the only two Commissioners not sponsoring this event.  That request failed to get support from Mayor Woods or any of the other Commissioners.