Friday, May 1, 2015

A rough, but telling stretch, for toll road opposition

Since starting this column,, a concerted effort has been made to not write about the same topic two weeks in a row.  But for every rule, there is an exception.

This week is one of those exceptions.

The last column told you about a long-shot opportunity to stop the tolling of I77 with HOT lanes through a bill submitted at the General Assembly by local Senator Jeff Tarte.

Well, since writing that piece the project to build toll lanes has gained some momentum in its trek towards financial close of the deal between I77 Mobility Partners – the local offshoot of Spanish contractor, Cintra – and the NCDOT.

The first big piece of the financing puzzle that appears to have fallen in place is the apparent approval of $189 million in Federal loans to I77 Mobility Partners from the TIFIA Credit Council within the US Department of Transportation. – the group that has been fighting the toll project - actually broke the story on their website on Friday, April 17th.  Members were holding out some hope that their source had “jumped the gun” in providing that information, but it now appears that is only thing left to do is get the signature of the Secretary of Transportation.  That just happens to also be from former Charlotte Mayor, Anthony Foxx.

A second major financing event also occurring over the past two weeks.  This time the action took place at the state level in the office of the Local Government Commission which is part of the NC Department of State Treasurer.

After two “special meetings” called on the subject of I77 financing, this Tuesday the LGC approved an additional $105 million in bonds to be sponsored by the NCDOT on behalf of I77 Mobility Partners.

So, after multiple delays, special meetings, excused penalties, and more state money being thrown at the project it does now look like the toll road contractor is limping towards financial close on May 17th.

With all of that as backdrop, a few other events occurred over the past two weeks – both locally and nationally - which serve to rub salt in the wound for toll road opponents.  They provide a glimpse of the possible future as well as insight in how we got here in the first place.

The first event occurred in Atlanta on the I85 HOT lanes.

On a Monday, 4/21, the road hit a new record high for tolls – $10.50 for a one way trip on the 16 mile stretch of road.  That record lasted a single day.  On Tuesday the toll hit $11.

Readers may remember when helped break the news that NCDOT’s own consultants predicted $11 tolls for the I77 project.  They helped pry that information from the state with repeated public records requests.  Project supporters and some local media decried publicizing those numbers as nothing short of scare tactics.  In one email between local mayors, Mayor Swain of Huntersville called the consultants’ report “old news”.

Tolls that high certainly aren't “old news” for those in Atlanta.  They are a current and very real hit to the pocketbook.

The second event that could foreshadow the local experience with HOT lanes took place in the Washington, DC area.  There, local HOT lanes users are suing toll rode operator, Transurban, for illegally gouging users.  In some cases, missed tolls of a few dollars have turned into fines of several thousand dollars once penalties are applied.

Are these events that occurred elsewhere in the country, the kinds of things I77 HOT lanes users can expect over the next 50 years if this project goes forward?  Maybe.

The final event getting attention over the past two weeks occurred locally and seems likely to generate more activity.

Last Wednesday, Rep John Bradford of Cornelius announced via his Facebook page that Mayor Chuck Travis of Cornelius had been appointed to the board of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority – the body responsible for rolling out toll roads across the state.

Cornelius has been a hotbed of opposition to the HOT lanes.  The irony of the town’s mayor being placed on a board to promote toll roads was not lost on members of another Facebook page – the 2400 member and aptly named “Exit 28 Ridiculousness” page which sees frequent posts about local roads.

Kurt Naas of posted to the site calling the appointment a “Slap. In. The. Face.”

The appointment seems to have spawned a renewed outpouring of opposition to the project among the “Exit 28 Ridiculousness” community and some activists.   This Friday, 5/1, they are organizing a protest from 430pm – 630pm at Exit 28 itself.

If you are interested in going, it promises to get interesting

A version of this post first appeared in this weeks's Herald Weekly.

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