Thursday, March 10, 2016

I-77 dominates local elections...again!

This article first appeared in the Herald Weekly at

It seems like it was just yesterday that anti-toll activists were basking in the glory of victories at the ballot box, but that was actually four whole months ago. A lot can happen in that amount of time, and when it comes to the controversy surrounding the plan for High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes on I77, a lot certainly has – not all of it good.

In the subsequent months, the lawsuit was heard with the end result being the courts failing to provide an injunction, the NCDOT inspector general issued a report effectively saying “move along, there’s nothing for you to see here” when it comes to the legal troubles of the I77 contractor (Cintra) and its parent company (Ferrovial) in Spain, and construction has continued with the clearcutting of trees in the road’s median – providing a daily reminder the project is still moving forward.

In the face these setbacks, one might get the impression the last round of local elections may represent something of a high water mark for the effort to stop tolls from coming to the Lake Norman region. However, if that’s the case activists opposing the project must not have gotten the memo. They have kept up the pressure on local electeds and kept the issue at the top of the local political agenda.

In response, incumbent politicians who were previously all but silent on opposing the tolls have come out of the woodwork to champion their defeat.

NC House 92 Representative, Charles Jeter of Huntersville, announced immediately after the November election that he would be asking for a House Select Committee to be formed to look at the issue. What has happened with that committee? Well, a committee was formed, but instead of it being focused on I77, it’s a committee to look at all sorts of strategic transportation issues - from ports to mass transit to yes, toll roads. To date this committee has done nothing to directly impact the I77 project.

NC Senate 44 Senator, David Curtis of Denver, has also made an aggressive 180 when it comes to tolls. As recently as last spring, he was in the “it’s a done deal” camp – buying into NCDOT’s threat of a $100 million penalty if the state cancelled the contract. Days after the November election he told the Charlotte Observer he no longer thought that was the case and was part of a group of lawmakers asking Governor McCrory to void the contract.

Even Attorney General Roy Cooper has gotten in on the act. Cooper, whose office reviewed the contract with Cintra before it was signed, gave no strong indications of where he stood until recently. Now, at every opportunity Cooper is saying the contract never would have been signed if he was governor.

What do all of these elected officials have in common? They’re all facing stiff election challenges this cycle.

Jeter and Curtis are involved in primaries against fellow Republicans where the toll issue the driving issue in their respective races. Jeter faces a rematch of his 2012 contest against Tom Davis of Charlotte. Davis even goes as far a to mention the toll issue on his campaign signs.

Curtis also faces a rematch against a former 2012 electoral foe, Chris Carney of Mooresville. The sharpest barbs of that current campaign have revolved around the toll issue.

As for Cooper, his big day will have to wait until November when he’s the odds on favorite to face Pat McCrory. That race is expected to be very close and any inroads he makes in the solidly Republican Lake Norman are could be a real difference maker. Cooper no doubt sees the enthusiasm here locally for Mooresville’s Robert Brawley who is challenging McCrory in the Republican primary on an anti-toll message and would like nothing more than to piggyback on that in the fall if McCrory escapes the primary victorious.

Rather than seeing Jeter, Curtis and Cooper opposing the idea of tolls now, wouldn’t it have been nice to have seen them actually fighting the toll back when the public really needed their support – before the contract was signed?!?!

Something to remember when heading to the polls this coming Tuesday.

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