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Charlotte City Council, with some members agonizing, punts

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Jan. 11By Dave Yochum. Councilwoman Vi Lyles has been directed to vote for the current I-77 toll plan and a managed lane strategy when the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization expresses its sentiments on the $650 million project at its Jan. 20 meeting.

The Charlotte City Council, which controls 46 percent of the CRTPO weighted vote, went 7-4 to affirm Lyles’ thinking around a managed lane strategy region-wide. The regional strategy using managed lanes and pricing was reaffirmed 9-2.

“The governor gave you a bad job to do,” Huntersville Commissioner Mark Gibbons told the council.

The managed lane concept itself is valid, but how I take issue, is with this contract, said Councilman Al Austin. “I think we need to put this contract in a box, put a bow on it and send it back to the governor.”

The council votes after 10:30 p.m. were an endorsement of the city council’s transportation committee which voted 3-2 earlier this month to continue support for the project, which has already started construction.

Just prior to the public hearing, Mayor Jennifer Roberts took pains to point out that the plan has been in the works for years, and that the City of Charlotte is not a signatory to the contract. “It is not appropriate for the City of Charlotte to address the technicalities of the contract,” she said.

“Even if we vote to change the managed lane strategy, does that obligate the NCDOT to cancel the contract? The answer is ‘no,'” she said.

Gov. Pat McCrory said he wants the CRTPO to vote up or down on the I-77 toll plan. While it’s unclear how much it would cost to cancel the 50-year contract and toll plan, it is clear the governor himself can cancel what appears to be a fatally flawed contract.

“Deaf, dumb and blind wrote this contract,” Councilwoman Claire Fallon said.

During the hearing, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett said the governor is driving a wedge in the entire community, even though five Democrats and three Republicans on the county commission oppose the contract. Puckett said the contract is a “tumor” in the managed lane concept and needs to be cut out.

John “Mac” McAlpine, a member of the I-77 Business Plan anti-toll group that also includes Bill Russell, the CEO of the Chamber, Tarte, Cornelius Mayor Pro Tem Woody Washam, WidenI-77 founder Kurt Naas and anti-toll activist Michelle Ferlauto, told Charlotte City Council that the toll plan’s impact on the local economy was well in excess of $42 billion—far greater than any penalty.

RELATED: I-77 Express Lanes Economic Impact

Lost productivity amounts to $20 billion over 50 years, McAlpine said,  literally begging Charlotte City Council to cancel the contract. He said managed lanes are not necessarily bad, that they may be a transportation solution, but not the 900-page Cintra contract as stated.

There has been a historic outcry in Lake Norman around the toll plan, The Lake Norman Chamber came out swinging against the plan, with help from such area legislators as Rep. John Bradford and Sen. Jeff Tarte.

Likewise, local boards and commissions, including Cornelius, Davidson Huntersville and even Mecklenburg County, have lined up against what’s called a P3, for public-private parntership between the NCDOT and Cintra, a company with roots in Spain.

Cornelius resident Diane Gilroy told Charlotte City Council she has information that shows a pattern of corruption around Cintra and its parent company, Ferrovial. She said she will take her findings to the U.S. Inspector General, because the N.C. Inspector General shared her information with NCDOT prior to conclusion of their investigation.

Tom Davis, a Huntersville resident and strategic planner for Yellow Freight, said the plan is a “disaster” around trucks and congestion since trucks aren’t allowed in the toll lanes as currently configured.

It was like a who’s who of Lake Norman leaders who spoke out against the toll plan.

Speakers voicing opposition to the toll plan included Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, Huntersville Commissioner Rob Kidwell and Cornelius Commissioner Mike Miltich.

Sen. Tarte said he, Rep. Charles Jeter and Rep. Tricia Cotham—daughter of Pat Cotham—have never cast a vote to approve the Cintra contract. In June of 2014, Tarte asked NCDOT for a review of the contract, ‘I was told no,'” he said. In spite of that, he said, NCDOT accelerated the signing of the contract.

Tarte said he recommends that “we cancel the contract, and redefine the project.”

Jeter started his remarks by apologizing: “It’s not fair, the position you are in. Without question you can bifurcate the vote and cancel the contract.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake said children yet unborn will be saddled with a 50-year contract. “Why is there no money for roads,” she asked.

Commercial real estate broker Tom McMahon said there are already palpoable negative effects because of congestion on I-77. “We are losing businesses…people are stopping coming to our region to open new businesses,” he said.

Bill Russell, CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber for the past two decades, said the three towns of North Mecklenburg are Ground Zero for the toll plan. “Lake Norman does not support this project…we actually do support managed lanes, but this does not work here.”

“We all want to leave our community want to leave our community better than I found it. If this project goes through, I will have failed,” Russell said.

But Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan had the last word, at least during the hearing. “Managed lanes provide a alternative to congested roads,” he said, saying the population will double in coming decades.

“Charlotte is not an island,” Mayor Roberts said.

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