Business

I-77 fight fueled by business

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ANALYSIS. By Dave Yochum.  A groundswell of public opinion culminating in a $9,600 anti-toll advertisement in the Charlotte Observer, is pitting Lake Norman business and political leadership against forces in Charlotte.

AntiTollObserverAd“Our elected leadership in Charlotte still holds the trump cards in a high stakes game which has dire consequences for the quality of life and commerce at the lake for the next 50 years,” says Bill Russell, CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. “It is no game, however. This nightmare is for real and the stakes are the legacy we leave for the generations to come.”

The issue, of course, is using tolls levied by what amounts to a private Spanish company to pay for new lanes on I-77 that can only be used by people who can afford to use them. Meanwhile, according to critics, the new lanes will do little to ease congestion on what Russell calls Lake Norman’s “Main Street.”

Around $100,000 has been raised by the anti-toll group Widen I77—it was founded by Concord business owner Kurt Naas—which is suing to stop the NCDOT-Cintra toll plan, which seems to have Gov. Pat McCrory’s blessings. Businesses ranging from Aquesta to Sperry Van Ness Commercial Real Estate have contributed, not to mention ordinary citizens who first mobilized with a public protest on the Exit 28 bridge back in May.

The Widen I-77 court date is Friday Jan. 8.

But the collective power of ordinary citizens who have jobs, employ people they care about and commute to Charlotte is formidable. One leading elected official—a respected Republican—in early January said McCrory and even politicians further up the food chain “couldn’t be elected dog catcher” right now. The issue of tolls or no tolls is pitting Republicans against Republicans.

Michelle Ferlauto, director of operations for Interactive Interiors in Charlotte, says the toll plan will have a huge negative impact on the Lake Norman economy.

“The ‘Carolina Comeback’ will be derailed in the Lake Norman area if this project proceeds….With South Carolina becoming so competitive in recruiting, decent transportation and affordable housing, the threat to lose our anchor businesses in the area is very real. It’s easier [for companies] to change scenery,” she said.

Lickety-split, she raised the $9,600 via the Exit 28 Ridiculousness Facebook page to pay for the ad in the Observer, timed to sway the Charlotte City Council, which plans to direct Councilwoman Vi Liles on how she cast her vote on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization.

The CRTPO takes up the toll issue Jan. 20 and could decide to ask NCDOT to cancel the contract with HOT lanes at the lake. The City of Charlotte—through its CRTPO rep Vi Liles—controls 46 percent of the vote.

RELATED: Charlotte City Council, with some members agonizing, punts

“There is a touch of irony that once again an individual, who does not reside in North Mecklenburg, could decide the future of a region for decades to come,” Russell said.

Somebody close to WidenI-77 told Business Today they will seek a stay of the lawsuit. The group has always maintained it would rather have this resolved through the political process, rather than the courts.

Now that the governor has kicked the issue back to the CRTPO, it means there is an entirely new layer of confusion. This was evident during the Charlotte City Council meeting Jan. 4. It’s possible that Widen I-77 will win the battle in front of Charlotte City Council, which will direct Lile’s vote.

But if CRTPO votes to re-affirm the most reviled transportation project in state history, the group will immediately move to lift the stay.

Widen I-77’s Kurt Naas could not be reached for comment.

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