Sunday, January 27, 2013

UPDATED: Media Watch: Is Lake Norman Media in the tank on I-77 HOT lanes?

The good news is that in general the answer is "no" they aren't completely and totally biased on this subject. 

Most local news outlets seem to be doing a decent job of getting out both sides of this story - covering the efforts to promote investigating alternatives.  Most are at least making an attempt to give space to alternative opinions in their letters to the editor or commentary pages.  Most aren't aggressively attacking those alternative opinions when they should know better. & have covered the story well - posting notifications of meetings, multiple articles about the citizens group's efforts, and even giving space for a lengthy commentary on the subject by Mr Vince Winegardner.  See articles herehere, and here with Mr. Winegardner's commentary here.  DNN has even posted links directly to information and links to audio and video of the Iredell County Commissioners and Cornelius Board meetings where those boards voted against the proposed toll plan.  They are doing a good job of giving citizens all sides of this important story as it unfolds.  (Note: Posting Mr. Windgardner's commentary shows a particular willingness to give hearing to all voices.  During the last municipal election in Davidson, there was a bit of tension between Candidate Winegardner and, but the publication does not appear to let that impact it's editorial choices.)

The Huntersville Herald has also done a fair job of reporting.  It's coverage of the January 14th meeting was nothing but a presentation of the facts of the event.  The publication has also allowed letters to the editor from the citizens group's members to be published.  See here and here.

Cornelius Today has had similar reporting to the Herald - covering the January 14th meeting here as well as the Cornelius Board resolution against the project here.  They also posted the announcement for the December North Mecklenburg Republican Women's (NMRW) meeting in December where this topic was discussed as did some of the other publications.

Incidentally, the NMRW hosted both Kurt Naas, founder of the  group, and Bill Thunberg of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission (LNTC) at their December monthly meeting.  There was a conscious effort on the group's part to include both sides of the discussion at the meeting to ensure attendees heard as much information as possible.  For a group that's not a news organization, this effort at evenhandedness was nice to see.

Then we get to the Lake Norman Citizen.  The Citizen is one of the Lake Norman area's main sources of local news.  They have a history of poking at some of the Lake Norman area municipal governments and have regularly posted biting letters to the editor on controversial subjects.  However, on the I-77 HOT Lanes the Citizen has fallen down on the job.  In fact at times, they have veered into actively attacking those who are questioning the proposal.  They seem to have thrown objectivity into the backseat on this ride.

Here are some examples:

Citizen coverage of the January 14th meeting painted a much different picture than what actually happened.  The post-meeting article focused almost entirely on comments by State Rep Bill Brawley rather than the presentation which was the reason for the meeting.  It very incorrectly painted the meeting as "tense".  If anything, the presenters from did an excellent job throughout the evening of keeping what could have been a tense evening rather light.  Everyone was treated with respect including those on hand from the NCDOT and the elected officials willing to express support for the project.  The Citizen apparently didn't see it that way.  (Watch the whole presentation here if you want proof.)

They took their disdain for opposition to toll lanes a step further when they also attacked a fellow member of the media - Mark Washburn of the Charlotte Observer - for writing this piece.  The Citizen's anonymous Talkers page took a few cheap shots - anonymous cheap shots - at people who might want to speak out on the subject.  And here's the kicker, they paint Mr. Washburn this way...

"Talkers just love it when one of the Charlotte daily paper's professional pontificators practices his profundity on a topic impacting we suburban pioneers (Did you know there are towns north of Charlotte that actually are in Mecklenburg County? Astounding!)." if they didn't know Mr. Washburn actually lives in North Mecklenburg himself and certainly would have an opinion on what it's like actually driving I77 every day. 

The Citizen has also refused to open it's pages to the members of for commentary pieces and letters to the editor - at least since that January 14th meeting when the subject has become a much hotter topic.  Based on what members of the group have made available to aShortChronicle, multiple pieces have been turned down from multiple writers.  That's a sharp diversion from the openness to differing opinions the paper has shown in the past. 

Finally, Citizen coverage of Cornelius's vote to oppose the current toll lane plan focused almost exclusively on why supporters thought opposition should be muted, and it reinforced the status quo position that there are no other options. 

For all these reasons, the Citizen deserves 4 tanks out of 5 on their I-77 HOT Lanes coverage.

UPDATE: The Citizen has finally published a piece that is just "the facts" on the subject of I-77 HOT Lanes for their January 31 issue.  Nice to see they were finally able to get there.  See here.


  1. Rick, I am glad that you felt it was a good idea for NMRW to have both sides presented. We felt that this would be in the best interest of our attendees to hear both the pros and the cons from one expert opposed to HOT lanes and one in favor of them. We also really appreciated Bill Thunberg for taking the time to speak at our meeting and to answer questions knowing that there could be opposition. As Bill O'Reilly says, he was a "stand-up" guy. And Kurt should be applauded for spearheading the effort to inform citizens of the HOT lane problems and for working on a solution. The media has been quite fair in their reporting and have done the public a great service with explaining the issue. Would like to see Lake Norman Citizen have a more balanced approach.

  2. I obviously haven't been following this closely since we decamped to ATL, but a couple things that strike me.

    Never forget that Meck half-cent transit tax money COULD be used to build bus rapid transit/HOT lanes. The original authorizing language explicitly mentioned "HOV facilities" as a state-approved expense. Besides BRT/HOT lanes are obviously transit and such projects HAVE received federal funding elsewhere.

    Hence you may see why the sudden interest in starting up almost ANY HOT 77 project WITHOUT touching transit tax money -- the Red line train in theory stays alive.

    In fact, I'd wager that a big motivation among HOT boosters on the government/insider/developer team is precisely that -- it removes the biggest threat to killing their train, which is a transit tax funded, federal qualifying BRT/HOT system for the 77 corridor.

    By merit a BRT/HOT project would be the next thing undertaken by CATS as it would be the most cost effective congest relieve for the region. Instead it is opting for the political course of running out to UNCC in order to build maximum support for taking the tax to a full penny, which would then be used to build the West Charlotte streetcar.

    In addition, understand that the recently added ATL HOT lanes on I-285 that Washburn referenced in the middle of last year have quickly gained acceptance and are tremendously useful.

    For one, the initial pricing was too high and was adjusted downward, just as gas prices started to drop too. Also understand that the leg they were added too maps more closely to the southern leg of 485 than 77 north of CLT. As such it has a ton of non-commuter workaday traffic that resented what seemed that an arbitrary tax on part of their routes.

    Much more alike is the GA 400 interstate grade toll road north of ATL, which incidentally has a transit component (light rail) as well. That is also an older toll-boothed install which as been retro fitted with Peace Pass transponder lanes. Needless to say ANY 77 HOT lanes MUST be booth-free, just like 285.

    If GDOT can figure out how to do it on online and wirelessly, NC DOT can too.

    But back to larger point -- make all state and local officials explain to you exactly why using transit tax dollars to build a BRT/HOT solution is not an option, one which would help preserve both highway dollars for other badly needed congestion relief in the corridor AND not tie your property tax dollars in supporting "transit oriented development" around train stations for a generation.

    From afar it certainly sounds like there is something of a bait-and-swtich afoot.

    1. Jeff,

      Thanks for the comment with some real world detail. Appreciate the insight.

      The interlinking and competing interests between the Red Line and the HOT Lanes is definitely something that has been percolating under the surface.

      It needs more attention - a topic for another day.