I-77 general-purpose lanes advocates get a shot in the arm

CORNELIUS – Whether or not the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization votes to send the Interstate 77 HOT lanes plan to the bidding stage, one local state representative says the rules in Raleigh are changing.

Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius said that he believed Gov. Pat McCrory’s newly proposed “Strategic Mobility Fund” could reopen I-77 discussions.

According to the NCDOT’s website, the Strategic Mobility Fund, which replaces the Equity Formula created in 1989, will focus on “projects that address traffic congestion and bottlenecks of regional or statewide significance will receive 40 percent of the available revenue, totaling $6.4 billion over 10 years.”

“It's not agreed on yet. It's what's being put forward to potentially be the answer," Tarte said. “Population, things that alleviate congestion, travel times – they should be factors in the formula. How soon that formula gets adopted, I think it will happen in the next few months.”

Tarte’s message wasn’t exactly an endorsement for general-purpose lanes, and he said MUMPO should proceed with the HOT lanes project while waiting on the transportation legislation to pass.

“The formula is changing, but that doesn't mean we have to put everything on stop,” he said. “We need to know if I-77 jumps to the top of the list. If it goes from 93 to 47 that’s one thing. If it does pop to the top five, we have a whole new argument to say it is our turn.”

Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy is more optimistic about the governor’s plan, and he asked his board to push MUMPO into giving general-purpose lanes an additional look.

“There is going to be $16 billion over 10 years,” he said. “The state is saying it's not about politics anymore; its going to be data-driven. The whole idea of strategic allocations and where you see the congestion in major cities and arteries going into major cities, economic development.... This all sounds like I-77. The idea that we can't somehow find $100 million to do two lanes in the next several years, out of the $16 billion, just defies logic and common sense.”

Gilroy also pointed out that state-level changes paired with a new ranking formula at the regional level within MUMPO could send I-77 to the top of all of North Carolina’s road projects.

"I sense that there is a defeatism that is at the core of the thinking in North Meck for local government,” Gilroy said.

"No matter what, we are gonna lose. The state is changing things, the region is changing things, we've got to look at it again. We've got to have a GP lane option on the table. We can't just sleepwalk our way into contracting for these toll roads.”

Tarte said that he has a letter written for when the Strategic Mobility Fund passes that will ask officials to reconsider general purpose lanes along I-77.

“I've got a letter ready to go as soon as the (Stategic Mobiliy Fund) passes that will request from Tony Tatta, the NCDOT secretary, and Mayor Biggers, who is the MUMPO chair, to run the formula and give us the result in a very abbreviated timeframe, by June. Because if it does fall to the top, then we have a whole different argument in funding that.”

Brawley sees a different approach

Rep. Robert Brawley, of Mooresville, said if MUMPO sends the HOT lanes project to the bidding stage, he will urge the General Assembly to shoot it down.

“I think we've got to talk about options and some people are saying, well this has already been decided,” Brawley said. “The General Assembly makes all kind of decisions about where money in this state is spent. The General Assembly is the final word. Let's look at the options before we go any further.”

Rep. Larry Pittman, Huntersville Commissioner Danny Phillips, Iredell County Commissioner Renee Griffith and Gilroy joined Brawley May 19 at a press conference in Mooresville.

Griffith, who sits on the MUMPO subcommittee, said that her board has been against toll lanes since they were first suggested.

“For too long, the decisions have been based on politics and not on the actual merits of the project,” she said. “The commissioners feel the only solution for the congestion from Mooresville to Charlotte is in adding general purpose lanes. It should be the number-one priority of the NCDOT. We've made that loud and clear.”

The counties, towns and cities that make up the subcommittees will join MUMPO in the next few months, Griffith said.

“It looks like Iredell county will participate and at that point, I’ll be on the MUMPO committee, not just the subcommittee," she concluded.