Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mushroom Alert: LKN Officials to Meet with NCDOT & Cintra in "Private Meetings" on I77 HOT Lanes

Update: DavidsonNews.net is now reporting that when confronted with citizens and reporters,  NCDOT caved and opened up the meetings after asking the electeds present.  NCDOT apparently now claims they never intended to have these be "closed" - a claim that is simply not credible after seeing correspondence from local officials involved.

Chalk this up as a small victory for open government!

Thanks go out to CarolinaPlottHound.com for posting this story from aShortChronicle and making it the fastest rising post in our site's history.  We work here to have an impact on transparency in local government.  If that work had anything to do with this outcome, it is something we are more than happy to continue doing.

Original Story:

aShortChronicle has learned of "private meetings" scheduled between LKN town officials, NCDOT, and I77 HOT Lanes contractor, Cintra.  These meetings will occur tomorrow, Thursday 8/21, in Mooresville (10am) , Davidson (1pm) and Huntersville (3pm).

Davidson Public Information Officer, Christina Shaul, confirmed that these meetings were set at the request of NCDOT, and they will be closed to the public.  She also indicated that town officials are working to schedule some more open meetings on the subject.

The Thursday meetings appear to be deliberately coordinated to avoid State open meeting requirements by limiting the number of elected officials from each town at each meeting.  This avoids any of the elected boards from having a quorum at any one meeting - something that would require them to be open to the public and the press.  As of this writing, there is nothing on the Town of Davidson website announcing these meetings will even occur.

This tactic has become an unfortunate pattern on a project plagued by poor communication with the public.  It was first used last year when the project was in earlier stages.  Now, for some reason it is being used after the "sale" has supposedly been made.  Why?

It also raises questions about who is in charge here.  Who makes the real decisions about how our public discourse will be conducted?  Are our elected officials running things, or are the unelected bureaucrats at NCDOT?  It would appear to be the bureaucrats.

We've previously and repeatedly been told that Cintra will eventually hold public hearings on toll rates.  Of course, that will only happen once it is too late to turn back.

In the meantime the public will continue to be treated like mushrooms - kept in the dark and fed only fully digested compost.

Bonus Observation:  Not all of our region's officials believe keeping these things hush-hush is the right thing to do or in the public interest.  If they did, this information would not have come out.  Now that it is out, will the "real" media do anything about it?  We here at aShortChronicle are not holding our breath.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

MeckBOCC Chair Dodges HOT Lanes Questions in Davdison

Mecklenburg County Commission Chair, Trevor Fuller, rolled into Davidson last night, but instead of some excitement and hard questions around HOT Lanes from the packed house topics stayed focused around the pending sales tax increase and education.  (At least that was the case for the first 45 minutes up until this blogger had to head home.  If things took a different turn later, please let us know.)

That's not to say WidenI77.org supporters weren't there in force.  They were.  It's also not to say they didn't ask hard and informed questions.  They did.

What was a bit unexpected was how Commissioner Fuller responded, or more accurately - preempted the questions.  As Commissioner Fuller was giving his opening remarks he worked in that the counties have little to no responsibility for roads in North Carolina, and more specifically on the I77 HOT Lanes project he said that he "knows almost nothing about it."  He even went as far as to say it would be improper for a County Commissioner to comment much on roads because they were the responsibility of other elected bodies.

A wily response from a wily politician.

I guess the Iredell County Board didn't get the memo though.  Back in January 2013 when the debate over HOT Lanes really began to rage, they showed the courage to step into the fray rather than hide from it. 

From DavidsonNews.net January 2013...

Widen I-77 finds an ally: Iredell board says no to HOT lanes

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Possible Turbulence for Monday's Open Forum with Meck County Commission Chair at Davidson Town Hall

With County Commission Chair, Trevor Fuller, slated to blow into Davidson Town Hall Monday night, there is a possibility of turbulence in the atmosphere if an anti-tolling front moves into the area at the same time.  WidenI77.org issued a public service announcement last Thursday regarding this meeting as an opportunity for those concerned about the proposed interstate tolling plan to express their concerns to local government.  Use caution if in the area.  If both do arrive at the same time it will likely create the following conditions:
  • Mayor Woods will likely open the meeting with an insistence that questions be limited to only those regarding "county business" as was mentioned in the town's public notice for the meeting.  (HOT Lanes on I77 will conveniently not be considered "county business".)  Expect repeated attempts to avoid and shut down discussion on this topic.
  • If the topic is broached, there is also a 90% chance that the word "misinformation" will be used by Mayor Woods at some point during the meeting with slightly lesser chances of "hyperbole" and "hysteria".
  • In the event HOT Lanes opponents are allowed to ask a single question, there is a 100% chance of heavy duty eye rolling from Davidson Commissioners Jenest and Graham.
This concludes this message from your local emergency broadcast system.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

HOT Lanes Meets Spinal Tap..."these go to eleven?!?!"

Click for Video if the reference escapes you.
Davidson's Town Board met with LNTC and NCDOT officials last week to discuss HOT Lanes in a special meeting.  See DavidsonNews.net for the whole story. 

It's commendable that this meeting occurred though it would have been much, much better if it had been allowed before the contract was signed for commercial close of the project.  Davidson Mayor, John Woods, squashed that from happening back in June saying the "only experts reside at NCDOT", so a meeting could not be had without them present.

Keeping with the letter of that sentiment, there was NCDOT representation at last week's meeting.  Former Charlotte City Councilman and newly minted NCDOT District 10 Director of Outreach and Community Affairs, Warren Cooksey, was on hand to support the State's Plan.  The other main speaker was LNTC Chair and Mooresville Jewelry Store Owner, Bill Thunberg.  (You may remember Mr Thunberg as the person who cast the tie-breaking vote that brought Mi-Connection into being when he was Mooresville's mayor.) 

With these "transportation experts" in the room, Davidson's Board got an in-depth briefing that appears to have given very little new information. 
  • Davidson will get a new bridge over I77 wide enough to accommodate bike lanes.  That was known already.  In fact, this is already incorporated in the Exit 30 small area plan updated last year.  Readers can decide for themselves if 50 years of tolls is a reasonable price to pay for 2 bike lanes.
  • Davidson still does not have an access point to the new HOT Lanes that is convenient for the town.  That was known as well when the Cintra proposal was initially released.  Why this was not fought for by the previous Davidson Board as a requirement for town support for the project is maybe the bigger question, but it is nice to know that the town will be pursuing it now - if it's not too late.
  • Commuters still don't know how much it will cost to use the HOT Lanes, but we are once again assured that there will be public hearings.  But there will be public hearings.  But there will be public hearings.

Promoters of this project just don't get it.  Reflexively saying there will be public hearings on the cost to use HOT Lanes is making them all sound like Nigel Tunfel in the mockumentary Spinal Tap when he says with confused concern

"...these go to 11?!?"

People want real answers now, not promises of some future action that might give them those answers later - after it's too late to turn back.

Monday, July 28, 2014

#NCSEN Off the Critical Path to a Republican Majority?

A lot has been written in the past two weeks about the Republican infighting in Raleigh and the negative impacts it's having on Team Tillis's campaign for the US Senate.  The most current round of that fighting may be coming to an end with reports of a "framework" to end the budget stalemate between the more conservative State Senate and their more moderate counterparts in the Thom Tillis-led House and Governor McCrory's executive branch.

The impact of this infighting on the US Senate race may be overblown, and one can also reasonably discount the most recent polling from Public Policy Polling data showing Kay Hagan's lead increasing.  The mainstream media and the Democratic pollster both have vested interests in pushing the current incumbent.

But what happens if the NC Senate seat becomes less important overall to the national Republicans and their big money allies in their quest to gain control of the US Senate?

At least one leading analyst sees the North Carolina race dropping in importance to the Republicans capturing the Senate this November, and that's a sentiment that could not come at a worse time for Team Tillis.  The Tillis Senate campaign has fallen way behind Kay Hagan in direct fundraising.  If that kind of thinking takes hold among the big-money donors to the Tillis Campaign, the same donors who helped buy the Republican Primary, that could mean real trouble down the road.

Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia had this to say in his Crystal Ball post for last week regarding the current election cycle.  (Emphasis added.)

"Earlier in the cycle, we suggested that the winner of two of these three Democratic-held states would be in great shape to win the Senate: Alaska, Louisiana, and North Carolina, which we have long categorized as Toss-ups. But now that may not be the case: Democrats, in particular, could win two of these three and still narrowly lose the Senate. Of the seven states won by Mitt Romney in 2012 where Democrats are defending seats — Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia — it appears that the Democrats are doing best in Alaska and North Carolina. Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) is running an excellent campaign, and the favored candidate of national Republicans, former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, has been stuck in a long primary slog against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R) and 2010 GOP nominee Joe Miller (R). Sullivan is catching it from both Democrats and his fellow Republicans right now, and some Republicans are worried that he’ll be so damaged he won’t be able to catch Begich, assuming he wins the Aug. 19 primary.

Meanwhile, it appears Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) has taken a small lead on state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), who may be losing points with voters because the unpopular state legislature’s session is in overtime. Hagan and Tillis both have weak numbers — so weak that a Libertarian with some amusing YouTube uploads, Sean Haugh, is polling in the mid-to-high single digits.

Both of these races remain Toss-ups, but Democrats look slightly better positioned in both at this point. Our “best two out of three” argument from earlier this cycle might be inoperative because Iowa is now so competitive. At this point, the most plausible path to a bare Republican majority of 51-49 looks like this: Beat incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Montana, and win open seats in Iowa, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Hence the Hawkeye State’s increased importance in the Senate landscape."

Notice, North Carolina does not make the cut in this list.

Last week there were also other events that do not bode well for the Tillis Campaign if either of these stories gain traction later in the election season.  First, by the Tuesday deadline, it appear three candidates made the official write-in list for the US Senate Race.  The DailyHaymaker blog has the details here.  Then on Thursday the I77 HOT Lanes story once again made the news.  This time raising the possibility of a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the project.  CorneliusNews.net has that story here.

In an extremely tight race either of these stories could sway things just enough to have an impact.

If that impact comes in the form of any reduction in dark money for Team Tillis in favor of a race perceived to be more winnable such as the one in Iowa, that could prove decisive.

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?