With all those qualifiers “solid” probably is not the correct way to describe the possibility of averting HOT lanes on Interstate 77, but at least it is a possibility that’s on the table with a bill recently submitted by NC Senator, Jeff Tarte (R-Mecklenburg) of Cornelius.
Readers may have seen the stories recently for a bond package being promoted by Governor Pat McCrory. The Governor wants the General Assembly to approve putting a $1.2 billion bond package on a statewide ballot this November to fund a number of road projects that fall way down on the list of state priorities – projects that would otherwise not be funded for a very, very long time under the state’s Strategic Transportation Investments Law or STI
Well, that possibility does not sit well with Senator Tarte, in an email response to questions for this story Tarte had this to say about the projects included in the bond proposal.
“They are political choices, not based upon agreed criteria in the STI for establishing priorities. We said we would take politics out of ranking road priorities, then we turned around and did exactly that. Endless supply of stupid in state government.”
As for the likelihood the bond package makes it to the ballot Tarte had this to say.
“My belief from talking to various folks was the authority to bond would not be granted. It still may not. But the idea remains on the table.”
With that as the backdrop, in late March Senator Tarte introduced Senate Bill 639 titled the “Transportation Funding Bill”.
While this bill is primarily a revenue bill proposing tax and fee increases to generate more transportation infrastructure dollars, it also includes an interesting provision requiring a local referendum prior to implementing any new toll roads. The preliminary effective date of the bill is August 1st 2015 – a date Tarte confirmed was chosen to include the I77 HOT lanes project.
So, what could happen – emphasis on could – with this proposal relative to the HOT lanes project?
After assuming the Legislature moves with jackrabbit speed to pass a complex and controversial set of new tax increases prior to recessing this summer and assuming the bill’s referendum provision survives the editing process, then you have to assume the public would even vote to stop the project for this bill to have any effect on the project.
With as much negative press as this project has received, you would likely think that a referendum shooting it down would be a no-brainier. However, historh and the setup of the referendum proposal itself would say otherwise.
We have seen this movie before here in Mecklenburg with the transit tax repeal effort in 2007.
In that effort, the special interests which benefited from the tax poured whatever it took into an the effort to defeat its repeal via referendum. The same thing would surely happen here if there was a referendum on HOT lanes.
In the case of the I77 project, local transportation officials have already approved how the “bonus allocation” that came with accepting tolls will be spent.
You can hear the ads now supporting tolls - ads funded by contributions from those who will build the road or benefit from its operations.
“Vote for tolls or lose $144 million in bonus allocation dollars.”
Add to that the fact that Tarte’s proposed legislation does not require any certain course of action in the event a project fails in a referendum. What happens then?
If the answer is simply the road doesn't get built and the next project in line gets those dollars, why would most people not vote for tolls under those circumstances?
Of course, that would be setting up the referendum as a false all or nothing choice.
The proposed legislation could say something like “in the event a toll project is defeated in a referendum all state dollars previously committed to the project must still be spent in the same transportation corridor.”
For the I77 project, that would be close to $300 million including the bonus allocation as well as the other funds the state has committed for the project in the contract with Cintra.
That would be enough to make some serious improvements to the corridor without resorting to tolls.
Then again, presenting it that way would also expose that we never needed to resort to tolls in the first place, and that's not something those who have supported the project are likely to admit.