The residents of North Mecklenburg have been strapped with a terrible deal: a 50-year contract that permits a foreign, unreliable company to charge drivers whatever makes them the most profit in order to drive in toll lanes. For years, our representatives did not act fairly in dealing with our region’s transportation crisis on I-77. This lack of leadership left us with an expensive, for-profit toll road, unmanageable congestion, a decades-long wait for improvements, and dangerous construction zones that seem to last forever. None of our representatives stood up for our region.
I oppose these toll roads and always have. As a candidate in 2014, I was one of the first and only candidates to speak out against the tolls. It was clear to me as an attorney that the CINTRA contract was a one-sided, bad deal. I said so publicly and included opposition to the proposed toll contract in my top issues.
On the other hand, the previous occupant of the office I now hold was for the toll lanes before he was against them. He, and many elected leaders like him, stalled for years and did nothing to stop the tolls. Despite a sustained outburst of voter anger, he provided only political posturing and enabled the toll project to proceed unhindered. As late as June of 2015, he said that he would not work to stop the tolls because he believed they were overwhelmingly popular. Even worse, in 2018, he voted to protect the toll contract and tie the Governor’s hands to fix this mess by giving the General Assembly the ultimate say on whether to cancel or amend the contract.
Our best advocate for a better deal on I-77 is Governor Cooper. He opposed the toll contract and called for it to be cancelled before construction began in 2016, when Cooper was Attorney General. Yet then-Gov McCrory pushed ahead and allowed construction to begin. When Cooper became Governor, he established the I-77 Advisory Group and, based on the group’s suggestions, has committed to cancel the toll contract and have the State take ownership of the lanes. This buy-back plan requires cooperation from the NCGA under SB99 which requires “express appropriation by the General Assembly,” for the hundreds of million dollars that will be required. The existing STI process is not appropriate for ranking the cancellation of this project; we need “specific, targeted legislation addressing the issue.” We need the legislature to act. Yet, NCGA leaders have refused to cooperate and, instead, have aggressively stripped the Governor of many of his powers, including the power to cancel or amend the I-77 toll contract without their approval. (SB99, SECTION 34.11.(a)(b)) The Widen I-77 group agrees that our previous legislators made the situation worse, saying “Unfortunately, in every situation, every interpretation, and every opportunity where the NCGA could have helped they have made canceling/modifying the contract more difficult.”
Since I was elected, I have worked with Governor Cooper to get the residents of North Mecklenburg a better deal on I-77 by filing a bill to restore the Governor’s authority to cancel and/or renegotiate the toll contract and to buy out the contract when feasible (which should not come out of the North Mecklenburg road projects budget). During construction of the lanes, I was in frequent contact with drivers who had questions and concerns about unsafe conditions in the construction zone, and made sure DOT was aware and responsive as problems arose. I am also able to help resolve incorrect toll bill disputes: If you get a bill that you do not owe, don't pay it! I support the recommendation of the I-77 Advisory Group to harden the shoulders between exits to add capacity during peak hours, a plan approved by CRTPO in July 2019. Construction on the shoulders was slated to begin in the summer of 2020, but got delayed due to the pandemic. I am also working to make sure we get a fair share of our tax dollars for road and sidewalk projects in our district. We must have transportation solutions that benefit all of our residents, not just those who can pay exorbitant tolls.
This issue affects all parts of our district and the state. As long as the Republican majority is in place, there’s nothing to stop the General Assembly from adding similar toll roads across all of Mecklenburg County and other parts of the state. Toll roads are unpopular for many valid reasons -- they are annoying, confusing, unfair as a double tax and bad for nearby towns and businesses. As I heard the NC Turnpike Authority Director say at a meeting about the new toll lane project in South Charlotte, “I’ve never been anywhere where toll lanes are popular.” Let’s quit electing people who like toll lanes.