This entire Cornelius Update is focused on the critical I-77 Toll Lanes issue - arguably the most important question currently facing North Meck and one that will fundamentally impact our daily experience and quality of life for several decades to come. Public frustration levels on this issue are beginning to boil over in North Meck and for good reason. The 3-2 vote to affirm Toll Lanes at our Town Board meeting this past week, was undoubtedly the single worst decision I’ve witnessed in my 8 years serving Cornelius. Based on the flood of emails I received, I am well aware that many of you share my profound disappointment in Chuck Travis, John Bradford, and Lynette Rinker for their ill-conceived and close-minded decision. I’ll explain where we are now on this issue, and then suggest how folks who want to channel their anger can get involved. Given the length here, you may want to read when you have a few minutes to spare.

 

A lot has changed since 2010 when we started exploring Toll Lanes as a means of widening I-77. Even since my last Newsletter 2 months ago when I wrote, “Political realities make financing General Purpose (GP) Lanes impossible for the foreseeable future”, the pace of change has been dramatic, and we have every reason in the world now to reconsider. In fact, anyone with an open mind taking a fresh look must acknowledge a compelling emerging opportunity to widen I-77 with GP Lanes on the same timeline as Toll Lanes, if not sooner. Here’s why -

 

State funding & prioritization. Our NC Legislature is now moving Governor McCrory’s proposed Strategic Mobility Formula sponsored by this region’s own Rep. Bill Brawley. The potential new law offers $16 billion over the next decade for statewide and major regional transportation needs – with a much higher priority put on “congested arteries serving major cities”. The Observer’s article on Tuesday called this forthcoming new law “the biggest overhaul in state transportation spending policy in 24 years”. A core principle of this new regime is funding more roadway capital projects based on a “data-driven” approach, not the same old political approach of the 1989 Highway Trust Fund Act, which would be outright cancelled.

 

Regional funding & prioritization. MUMPO (Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization – the key allocator of funds for our region) formally adopted an entirely new methodology and criteria (“Roadway Project Ranking Methodology”) on March 20, 2013. This new criteria explicitly puts far more weight on objective factors highly advantageous to I-77 GP Lanes (e.g. Reduces Congestion, Access to Employment Center) and far less weight on factors disadvantageous to GP Lanes (e.g. Center City, Impacts Air Quality which now carry no weight at all). Carefully considered analysis presented to our Board by Kurt Naas and Vince Winegardner suggest that GP Lanes would go from the infamous MUMPO ranking of #93 circa 2010 to the top of the list, if not the #1 project in the region. For those of us who drive around this region every week, this is purely common sense.

 

Even if the Strategic Mobility Formula legislation doesn’t pass this session, GP Lanes would still go to the top of the list in NC if MUMPO’s new methodology supports the project. This is because I-77 GP Lanes have always scored extremely well at state level on a quantitative merit basis, but have lacked MUMPO’s political support in the past which is key.

 

So, when Speaker Thom Tillis, whose words have huge impact and for good reason, famously said “good luck getting GP Lanes through MUMPO” earlier this year, in a meeting with several local officials and the Widen I-77 organization, he may have been right then, but the regional and state framework for highway funding is now changing radically almost real-time.

 

So, why no similar change in the views of many of our politicians, as reflected in Cornelius’s idiotic vote Monday night? Several reasons, all inexcusable:

 

Ego and psychology. Travis, Bradford, and Rinker (all close colleagues of mine who do not take strong policy disagreements personally), like so many other politicians, have strenuously and loudly made the argument in recent years that “it’s toll lanes or no lanes”. We all understand the powerful instincts in human nature against admitting when we might be wrong

Defeatism – Many of these I-77 discussions exude an attitude of defeat – “we’ve lost; there is no hope; Charlotte owns MUMPO and they’ll never support what's fair and makes sense in North Meck because they simply don’t care, etc.” This is self-fulfilling of course; as long as North Meck leaders don’t challenge status quo thinking, then Charlotte politicians are happy to let us pay tolls forever

Government inertia – “hitting the pause button” is never something government at any level does well. A massive enterprise like the current $550 million Private-Public Partnership (P3) conceived in 2010 and coordinated across innumerable local, regional, and state government entities long since took on a life of its own and an aura of inevitability. It’s the “way the wind is blowing” and so many of our politicians go along to get along unfortunately

Absolutism – for me, the most painful reason why North Meck is “sleep walking” into a minimum 50 years of paying several dollars each way to avoid ever worsening gridlock on I-77, is the reason John Bradford gave for voting for Tolls, “unless we have 100% confirmed proof of GP Lanes in the near future, then I choose Toll Lanes.” There are huge unknowns and risks associated with Toll Lanes (see WidenI77.org for a full set of facts and insight about managed Toll Lanes realities) and similar projects elsewhere have gone terribly wrong (see recent Washington Business Journal article about an eerily similar P3 structure set up in Virginia in the late '90s now in disarray with financial failure, crazy-high tolls, and hyper congested GP lanes AND surrounding secondary roads - Greenway Mess), why in the world would we err on the side of Toll Lanes as Bradford suggests?

 

All of us in local, regional, and state leadership owe our constituents an intense effort to due diligence a GP Lanes option. With the rapidly changing framework for roadway projects in NC, now is the time. NC DOT will not sign the contract for Toll Lanes until the end of the year, so there is sufficient time to act. Clearly, development and good faith due diligence of an alternative option is simply smart planning. After all, I-77 must be widened ASAP, and there are still uncertainties around Toll Lane economics and feasibility. $170 million of the $550 million on the Toll Lane project is NC taxpayer funded anyway – can some way be found for these same dollars to go to GP Lanes (especially since we would only need as little as half of this total)?

 

As a first step, I made a motion at our Board meeting to respectfully ask MUMPO to analyze how a GP Lanes option would be evaluated under their newly adopted prioritization methodology (even if only to provide a preliminary, informal assessment). Common sense, right? Yet Rinker, in her confused, highly charged thinking on this subject, broke our tie in voting this motion down, even though earlier in the evening her chief criticism of the Widen I-77 analysis was that Naas and team had not yet worked directly with MUMPO personnel.

 

How can you help? Go to WidenI77.org and learn more. Sign the petition. Attend the next meeting. Email lrinker@cornelius.org, ctravis@cornelius.org, and jbradford@cornelius.org and demand that Cornelius send a message to MUMPO and regional/state politicians that a serious, fresh look at GP Lanes is needed given the emerging, entirely new framework for transportation spending in NC.

Dave Gilroy

Commissioner, Town of Cornelius