Politics

Toll battle shifts to NC Senate

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June 6. ANALYSIS. By Dave Vieser. What happened last week with House Bill 954, which calls for the cancelation of the I-77 toll lane contract, was nothing short of amazing. The legislation was initially given virtually no chance of passing when it was first introduced. Then as troubling details about the Cintra toll lane contract were explained to members of the NC House of Representatives, interest in the bill reached a point where it gained a review by two key committees.

And then, as the week progressed, it moved to the full house from both the Transportation and Appropriations committees, though still just carrying what looked like lukewarm support.

But the bill passed the State House of Representatives by an overwhelming 81-27 vote. Local residents helped generate a significant number of emails to legislators in support of the measure which, officials admit, helped turn the tide.

“For every person who says, it can’t be done, I say, keep watching,” said Cornelius resident Michelle Ferlauto. “This was never supposed to happen. The people, with—their representatives—made it possible.”

Procedurally, the next hurdle to overcome is to get the bill heard before a senate committee. “Right now our energies are best spent persuading Senate President Phil Berger to move the bill to the Senate Transportation Committee,” said Widen I-77 head Kurt Naas. “We’ve found that as legislators learn the details of this contract they realize it’s a bad deal not only for Lake Norman but also for North Carolina as a whole.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett said the estimated revenue from tolls are between $3.5 billion and $4 billion “that will be taken out of NC taxpayers and sent to Spain.” While the NCDOT did not order an economic impact study of the toll lanes between Lake Norman and Charlotte, a UNCC transportation professor estimates the negative economic impact for the life of the contract to be more than $10 billion.

Puckett, meanwhile, is helping drive a grassroots email campaign to sway North Carolina state senators.

The legislation directs that the state cancel its contract with I77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of Spain based Cintra to build the toll lanes by September, and appropriates $25,000 from the state Highway Fund to be used for any legal fees incurred in determining the amount of damages that may be owed and other effects resulting from cancellation of the toll lane contract.

However, what happened this week may turn out to have been the easy part. “Take a breath and enjoy the moment,” said County Commissioner Jim Puckett. “Now comes the heavy lifting.”

The “heavy lifting” is getting the bill approved by a reluctant NC Senate. Sen. Jeff Tarte, the former mayor of Cornelius, says the most effective way to reach his fellow senators is to let the business community and the residents lead the charge.

Tarte recommended that residents line up behind business leaders such as John Hettwer, a former Lake Norman Chamber chairman, and Chamber President Bill Russell who are carrying the message to senators. Russell says the message is clear and concise. “Tolls at Lake Norman on I-77 are bad for our citizens, bad for our communities, and bad for commerce. Cancel the contract!”

Likely also to be discussed during the next several weeks is what will happen if indeed the contract is canceled. One option frequently mentioned is for the state to take over the construction and build general purpose lanes.

The legislature’s short session should conclude around July 1, leaving about three weeks for the bill to be discussed, debated and voted on in the Senate. If that happens, it would then land on the desk of Gov. Pat McCrory. McCrory could veto the bill but if the measure passes the Senate as strongly as it did in the house, an override, which requires a three-fifths legislative majority, is a distinct possibility.

Safe to say all eyes will be on Raleigh during the next several weeks to see if the “impossible” might come to be.

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