A sad day for our grandchildren….
A sad day for our grandchildren….
This past Saturday the Mecklenburg Republican Party held their annual convention at Myers Park Presbyterian Church. While most of us were mowing the lawn or hitting the grocery store or doing those Saturday things, the Party Faithful gathered to affirm, energize and debate the issues of the day.
Or at least that’s how it was supposed to work. Instead what happened was a stunning slap-down by the state party. After three hours of speeches essentially saying the same thing, the convention began the business session. Rules Committee Chairman Warren Cooksey proposed the following change:
Resolutions considered by the Convention shall be in one of the following categories:
i) Resolutions in memory of Republican activists in Mecklenburg County or honoring a particular achievement or achievements of Republicans in Mecklenburg County; or
ii) Resolutions recommending that the State Convention adopt specific resolutions, platform planks, or amendments to the State Plan of Organization.
In other words, the Mecklenburg Republican Party will no longer pass resolutions taking a stand on an issue… any issue… like, ummm, toll lanes. Instead they must go hat-in-hand to Raleigh in the hopes that the NC GOP will deem their issue worthy.
Last year, you may recall, the Meck GOP unanimously adopted an anti-toll resolution. Later in the year the NC GOP Convention debated a similar resolution, but House Speaker Thom Tillis scuttled a vote by walking out. This year, in the words of one party apparatchik, “the GOP didn’t want to have any embarrassing issues back in Raleigh.” Apparently, opposing a plan that costs the taxpayer millions, gives away our public right-of-way, and allows a private company to profit from 50 years of congestion misery constitutes an embarrassment for the state Republican Party.
The official spin was that a representative with a district covering more than one county might get conflicting directives. Of course, this would necessitate the representative getting out and talking to constituents. The GOP leadership solved that “problem” by essentially telling representatives they now take orders from Raleigh.
Not surprisingly the party establishment- led by Thom Tillis- voted in favor of the resolution. We do not have an official count, but we’re told the vote was “close.”
Eighty nine delegates registered this year, down significantly from 164 last year. We’re told this is typical for an off-cycle election with no local elections. But one has to wonder… with North Carolina’s Senate race garnering national attention and Tillis’ seat in the NC House up for grabs, shouldn’t there a be a little more enthusiasm?
Perhaps giving up a Saturday just to be told what to think is a waste of time… even for party die-hards.
Last week John Rhodes, the former state representative from North Mecklenburg, held a press conference during which he urged an investigation into Thom Tillis’ “pay-for-play” tactics. To break nearly eight years of silence, Rhodes’ reasons must have been pretty compelling, and you can read about the” why” of it here. With Senate Candidate Tillis touting his record of legislative achievement, we thought it appropriate to remind you of the promises Representative Candidate Tillis made eight long years ago.
In 2006, former Cornelius Commissioner Thom Tillis ran a spirited primary campaign against Rhodes. Rhodes made a name for himself by challenging Speaker Jim Black on corruption charges. Black, you may remember, accepted bags of campaign cash in a restaurant bathroom. He was an easy target, and Rhodes made bales of political hay. Rhodes was the 2005 Americans for Prosperity Legislator of the Year. Black served prison time.
A pro-business publication gushed Tillis was a more thoughtful, analytical candidate, and the style of his campaign- “unemotional and spreadsheet methodical” -proved it.
The reality was a bit different. Tillis ran this ad, accusing Rhodes of not getting the results we needed to improve traffic congestion. Tillis promised he would work with state and local officials to
drive results. We just needed to remove “Road Block Rhodes.”
Friends, that was way back in 2006. Since then there have been two major road improvements in Tillis’s district: widening Sam Furr from 21 to 115, and widening Catawba from I-77 to Jetton. Both were in the works before he took office. What has Tillis done about widening the region’s most important road, I-77? Let’s look at the last eight years.
In 2007 the freshman legislator perhaps needed a year or two to get some wind beneath his wings, especially for something as complex as widening an interstate. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, let’s say Tillis spent his first term getting to know the “inner workings of Raleigh” because we can find no record of him advocating widening I-77.
That brings us to 2008, and another election. Tillis ran unopposed. The solution for widening I-77 then was Augustalee, a half-billion dollar mixed-use project in Cornelius. Under terms approved by the Cornelius Town Board, the developer would loan up to $90M to widen I-77 from exit 23 to exit 28. Back then there was no discussion of “HOT lanes” or “managed lanes” or “alternatives to congestion,” so all parties- even the LNTC, Davidson Town Board and NCDOT- gave unanimous approval. (That was ~5 years ago. In an ironic twist, that same NCDOT now says if we widen I-77 with general purpose lanes they’ll be re-congested in ~5 years. )
I remember speaking with Tillis about the possibility of widening the interstate within the next two or three years, and he mentioned the “half-billion dollar Augustalee hammer” he was swinging back in Raleigh. Of course, that project went into foreclosure and Tillis went back to Raleigh after being re-elected in 2010.
He assumed the Speakership in 2011 and what followed was a period of silence regarding widening I-77. While Tillis’ opposition to tolling I-95 is well-documented, he said little about I-77 beyond what we could find in this video clip. And the ‘road block’ promise faded into memory.
The bottom line is, after four terms in the House and now hot on the campaign trail for the U.S. Senate, Tillis has yet to bring any type of road funding to our area besides having you pay directly for it via tolls. In fact, one could make the opposite argument: Tillis has used the full force and power of his speakership against building anything but toll lanes. He’s thwarted every attempt at either developing general purpose lane alternatives or bringing up I-77 toll lanes for a vote by the legislature. (Remember him stomping out of the NC GOP Convention over tolls?)
Friends, a plan that has you paying taxes and then additional tolls is not a legislative accomplishment. With eight years in the legislature and only toll lanes to show for it, Tillis’ commitment to roads in our area deserves serious skepticism.
Looking back, we’re miles down the highway from that hopeful candidate who made heady promises about getting things done and removing “Rhode blocks.” The toll lane proposals are due at the end of this month, the contract is supposed to be signed in June, and nobody has looked at the general purpose alternative.
The tragedy of all this is we’ve long lamented our road issues are the result of a lack of clout in Raleigh. But with the Speaker of the House, the Governor and a Senator all hailing from our neck of the woods, our influence has never been greater than it is right now. Yet that clout is being used not to re-invest our tax dollars here, but rather to have us cough up even more for roads.
More puzzling, in 2013 the legislature passed the Strategic Mobility Fund law which prioritizes projects based on merit instead of political patronage. We talked with NCDOT Division 10 and they said a general purpose lane project on I-77 would score “extremely well” under the new system. Yet Tillis refuses to call for ranking such a project under the new rubric, instead preferring to rush headlong into signing a 50 year contract.
Forget where you stand on the toll lanes for a moment- that’s just poor management.
Perhaps, as Rhodes suggested, Tillis is in tow with some powerful, pro-toll business interests. After he assumed the Speakership, Tillis became a fundraising juggernaut, raising nearly $1.7M since he was handed the Speaker’s gavel. (By comparison, he raised $72K for his 2006 campaign.) Cash for his Senate campaign rolls in from “super PACs”, those opaque entities designed to let donors give unlimited amounts while keeping their identities secret.*
We could speculate, but the bottom line is this: Tillis is just fine with giving all of our remaining public right-of-way to a private company so they can profit from our congestion misery for the next 50 years.
If this is how Tillis represents his constituents in Lake Norman, what can we expect if he represents North Carolina as Senator?
*Example: Grow NC Strong is a super PAC formed to support Tillis. You’ll never find it on the internet and will never find a public statement of why it exists. One donor, Dawn Properties, gave $25,000 last year. Who the heck is Dawn Properties? You won’t find much on the internet, but a search of NC incorporation records shows Dawn Properties owns properties where car dealerships are located… in fact where all of Randy Marion’s dealerships are. I’m sure $25K is a drop in the bucket for Mr. Marion, but why go to such lengths to conceal it?
Today the East Coast P3 Conference wrapped up in downtown Charlotte. Sponsored by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, the event focused on how to build public projects via public-private partnerships (P3). About two hundred movers and shakers attended, including Gov McCrory, Transportation Secretary Tata, Mayors John Woods and Jill Swain, Commissioners Sarah McAulay and Brian Jenest, a host of consultants, bank vice presidents, lawyers and….uhhh….me. I attended because of the generosity- and behest- of some folks up in Lake Norman who insisted I needed to be there for the little guy and they put their money where their mouth was.
Our MC’s for the event were Swain and Charlotte Councilman David Howard, co-chairs of the Transit Funding Working Group.
McCrory and Tata kicked off as keynote speakers. Interestingly, they said very little about public-private partnerships (P3s) but quite a lot about the new Mobility Formula. Tata talked about I-77 HOT lanes, saying the bids close by March 31, the best value proposal will be determined two weeks after that followed by a 60 day cooling off period and then “shovels in the dirt.” Seventeen months later we can expect HOT lanes. Then they threw it open to questions and my hand involuntarily went up. My question, pretty much verbatim, was:
The taxpayer contribution for the I-77 HOT lanes project is $170M. Yet, estimates show a general purpose lane project widening the road just where we need it would cost around $100M. Secretary, before we sign a 50 year contract that takes $20-30M a year out of the Lake Norman economy and costs the taxpayer tens of millions more, shouldn’t we evaluate a general purpose lane alternative?
The response (in so many words): We don’t know the time slip impact. We don’t know if the fiscal part is true. We’re also looking at it as a general purpose contract.
I have no idea what that last statement means, but I get the impression Tata really really really wants to do a P3. I guess to him we’re a feather in a cap. Seeing as how he’s the guy who will sign the contract, that’s not a good thing unless you’re looking forward to fifty years of tolls.
The pervasive theme through the conference was how to get money to build stuff. And boy are they getting creative. Among the things for sale:
For me, one presentation stood out, although not for positive reasons. It was given by the Director of P3 programs in Virginia. Last year VDOT was subject to a lawsuit from citizens over a proposed toll increase for a tunnel under the Elizabeth River. The toll increase was to pay for a second tunnel. The plaintiffs argued that putting toll revenues to a different use constituted a tax, not a user fee. The Virginia Constitution grants the General Assembly sole powers of taxation; a government agency cannot set tax rates. A circuit court judge agreed, but last fall the Virginia Supreme Court overruled. In a decision that would make John Roberts proud, they ruled the second tunnel- and therefore the increased tolls- were part of an “integrated transportation network providing benefits not available to the general public”, and therefore were not a tax. As the presenter said, “we’ve got some smart lawyers.”
He also lauded the success of the recently opened Capital Expressway toll lanes. He neglected to mention they lost $51M in their first year of operation. After his presentation the CEO of Charlotte Area Transportation Systems (CATS) started her closing remarks by thanking him and saying “this is a great model we hope to replicate here.”
Several presenters talked about the savings going the P3 route. The folks at my table seemed to agree that financing costs would have to be higher- an equity partner is going to demand a whole lot higher return than a municipal bond holder. Also, toll lanes incur significant operating costs that general purpose lanes do not. The much-loved Capital Expressway incurred $19M in operating costs last year for a 13 mile stretch of road. Since it’s brand new, I assume that does not include maintenance. I wanted to ask about those costs, but wore out my welcome with the first question.
The other theme was transparency. “The process needs to be open to all parties so there are no surprises,” trumpeted elected officials from the dais. Except for I-77. We still don’t know where we’re going to get on and off, we don’t know how we’d get on or off, and we still don’t know how much the damn tolls are expected to be. I learned yesterday that parts of the agreement will remain secret even after it is signed. And North Carolina’s P3 legislation allows P3 agreements to be conducted in secret.
In the interesting tidbits department:
Sarah McAulay, to her credit, came over and said ‘hi.’ As you know, I’ve had issues with Sarah in the past. She was joined a few seconds later by David Howard. Howard represents Charlotte on MUMPO (now CRTMPO) and his vote counts for 46% of everything. Sarah introduced me as the “anti-toll guru.” Fair enough. I explained to Howard that the I-77 toll financials make no sense- $20M would be required yet a similar project in Salt Lake City (same metro area) only grosses $900K. He said I can always find negative reasons; we don’t have the money otherwise; and P3’s are the future of how we’re going to get things done. I noted that if we don’t have money, a general purpose alternative would save the taxpayer vs what they’d pony up for HOT lanes, to which he replied widening with GP lanes is a “short term solution- you’d have the same problem in 2 years.”
I wanted to ask why that logic doesn’t apply to I-85 in Cabarrus, or why NCDOT is considering a huge project to widen I-77 through south Charlotte with general purpose lanes, but the next session started. It was not a productive discussion.
The biggest zinger of the event, at least for me, was the “question” Swain asked a panel near the end of the second day. It was lengthy, but an accurate paraphrase (as quickly as I could write):
Inevitably in projects of this type there are citizens who do their own research on the internet or papers or whatever and they find projects that fail, and they focus on those projects. But since we’ve learned so much, aren’t they focusing on the wrong things? How do you answer those people?
The panelists’ response essentially was ignore them and let the facts speak for themselves.
It was a long couple of days.
Last night in Huntersville the newly-formed Lake Norman Conservatives (LNC) kicked off their first meeting by hosting three Republican candidates for U.S. Senate. The wide-ranging 90 minute forum touched on a number of topics, but our ears really perked up when the subject of P3’s (public-private partnerships) came up.
This type of financing model is being proposed for toll lanes on I-77 through Lake Norman. In exchange for building toll lanes on the remaining public right-of-way, the current plan grants a private company (commonly referred to as the P3) the exclusive right to operate the toll lanes under a 50 year contract. Taxpayers will kick up to $170M of the anticipated $550M construction costs.
The P3 is free to set toll rates, and tolls would vary based on the congestion in the general purpose lanes. Right now the P3’s bidding for the contract anticipate the tolls would range from a few pennies to as much as $9 one way.
Before an overflow capacity of over 150 people, the candidates- Greg Brannon, Heather Grant and Mark Harris- stood shoulder-to-shoulder in their opposition to this type of funding. Brannon noted that P3’s are the “worst of both worlds”: they grant a private company powers that should be reserved for the government. Harris, the pastor at First Baptist Charlotte, “wondered why would we want to pay tolls from now until Jesus comes?” And Grant noted that, while private companies are more efficient in general, this is not the case when they get to act like a government.
Their position is at odds with the other major candidate, Thom Tillis. Citing a prior conflict, Tillis was not present. He lives in nearby Cornelius. To date he has not attended any candidate forums.
Tillis has been the primary mover behind the I-77 toll project despite widespread opposition from his constituents. He cites budget constraints as the reason, at one point accusing a constituent of “living in a parallel universe” for thinking the state has enough money for roads.
I-77 toll lane opponents point out that the road can be widened where it is needed for less than the proposed taxpayer contribution to the private toll lanes.
While we’re heartened at the candidate’s grasp of the issue, we couldn’t help but noticing an interesting cross-current. One the one hand, the room buzzed with energy. In a little over a month, the LNC have over 550 members on Facebook. The story about the forum was picked up from one end of the state to the other, and even out-of-state publications like the Washington Times. Clearly they have touched a nerve.
By contrast, the North Mecklenburg Republican Women (NMRW), the “establishment” organization in the region, has around 850 members in the five years it has been in existence. Of the three Lake Norman towns- Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson- only two elected officials from Huntersville attended last night’s forum. (Commissioners- and Tillis- are regular attendees at NMRW meetings.) Neither of the Republican candidates for Tillis’ seat attended last night.
Which leads to an interesting question: is the Republican Party about to commit fratricide? It seems the Establishment has turned its back on a sizeable chunk of their constituents.
The genesis of this, at least in Lake Norman, is the toll issue. GOP apparatchiks point out that “you never agree with someone 100% of the time”, so if you agree 80%, you should vote for that person. A single issue- like tolls- should not be splitting the party apart.
Unless, of course, that issue is symbolic of a larger one.
This is absolutely the case. Opposition to I-77 tolls is widespread. Even in Davidson, a predominantly liberal enclave whose town board “unanimously and enthusiastically” endorsed tolls last year, 56% of residents opposed tolling I-77 ever, according to a survey by Davidson College. An unprecedented grass roots organization has sprung up in opposition, and the topic was the subject of much discussion during last November’s election.
Yet, Tillis has remained steadfastly in favor of private tolling, maintaining without tolls I-77 would not be widened for at least 15 years. Perhaps, but the fact is no one- neither Tillis nor anyone else- really knows for certain. That’s because the NCDOT has never evaluated a general purpose lane project under the new funding criteria passed last summer. That criteria, called the Strategic Mobility Formula, gives a high priority to cost-effective projects that reduce congestion, and the general purpose lane project fits this criteria exactly. Unfortunately, Tillis wants to sign a 50 year tolling contract without evaluating a general purpose lane project first.
One way to ensure nothing happens is to never try.
So the issue is more than tolling- it’s about a representative failing to listen to his constituents. And it begs the larger question: if Tillis won’t listen to the folks in his own backyard as their representative, will he listen to people across the state as their Senator?
Judging by the enthusiasm last night, it’s a question many are asking.
The NCDOT is holding a public comment period prior to submitting their long range transportation plan under the new, data-driven formula. Please stop and and tell them you want a general purpose lane alternative to I-77 HOT lanes:
Date: Thurs. Jan. 30
Time: 4-7 pm
Metrolina Regional Transportation Management Center
2327 Tipton Dr.,
Charlotte, NC 28213
Contact: Tim Boland
Division 10 Comment Form (PDF)
This past Saturday we observed a Facebook discussion between Thom Tillis and his constituents about tolling I-77. We weren’t party to the discussion but added our observations and have edited for brevity. It still reads a bit long, but we hope it provides some insight into the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate.
Tolls would be a huge tax burden on tens of thousands who work and live along 77. I can’t support that hidden tax but I guess it will raise tens of millions from taxpayers each year right?
Have you teleported to a parallel universe where we have funding for the project NOW or are you in this universe where we do…it’s just 20 years from now? Incidentally it will raise 10′s of millions in revenue from the non taxpayers who use it for “free” right now. If you think this is a liberal position, you really ought to check with Heritage, John Locke, and others who would disagree.
WI77: Not only are we giving our public right-of-way to a private company for their exclusive use, the taxpayer is making the down payment. Yet, a general purpose lane solution would cost less than that down payment. If we have money for the down payment, we have money for the GP solution. No parallel universes necessary.
Thom. Philosophically I am aligned with your thinking likely some 95% but have you ever lived in a city that has tolls? They are a slippery slope and a daily pain in the behind to people who work at places like Lowes and have to commute to an office 10 times per week. The toll tax also punishes them. Issue some bonds or find another way to make the $130 million available so taxpayers are not stuck with more daily taxes as they do to and from work or Uptown from Cornelius etc.
I’m with Thom on MORE than 95% but I, too, am totally opposed to toll roads. I’ve lived where toll roads are a way of life and bleed folks on fixed incomes or those just trying to get to work. One of the reasons I chose NC as my home over 20 years ago was SPECIFICALLY to STAY AWAY from toll roads!
I wish I could grab most of you on both sides by the collar and shake some sense into you all. This issue is dividing our party and could actually cause a tax-and-spend liberal like Hagen to squeak back into office! C’mon, folks.
I’m either naïve or just an optimist, but There MUST be another way forward other than toll roads, which inconvenience and punish taxpayers on a daily basis wherever they exist – and, once established they NEVER go away…
I would respectfully urge the formation of a good faith committee to find an acceptable alternative to toll roads, address legitimate traffic concerns — and restore harmony and unity among NC conservatives during this critical election cycle — so we can successfully deal with the myriad of other problems we face….
…I do like the idea of capturing revenue from those who pay little to no taxes but I don’t see them as the big revenue driver in HOT lanes. They are free to drive anytime they want and choose a time to use 77 when the “free” lanes are empty and can avoid any toll. The HOT lanes are punishing the commuters who drive to Lowe’s Corp 10x per week and to Bank of America in Uptown 10X per week when traffic is at it’s worse from 7AM-10AM and 3PM to 7PM. They have no choice and will be forced to spend hundreds of dollars in after tax monies each year just for the privelage of getting to work ontime where they use their gas that is taxed at 36 cents per gallon and a car that is slammed with an annual excise/property tax where they get slammed by another 35% tax on the money they earn each day. People in NC who make over 80K per year must be turing over more than 50% of thier earning to government each year after all is said and done. Let’s not hammer them any more with transponders, tolls and another massive daily tax that they can’t avoid if they want to keep working…. Again…I have your back 95% of the time but HOT lanes hurt far too many working people who are doing nothing more than trying to get to and from work each day to put food on the table for their kids and to afford college for them someday.
Perhaps one of the differences between your’s and my perspective is that I have been to every transportation division in the state. I have seen bridges that are patched, and traffic jams that would make I-77 look like something they would be happy with on many days. I’ve seen western counties that have been waiting for a four lane north/south connector (corridor K) for decades and, yes, I have lived first hand the problems with I-77. When I speak with all of these folks across the state, they all have one thing in common. They believe their need should be the #1 priority, and many of them are right. So how are we going to pay for it?
WI77: Wil Neumann, a State Representative from Gaston, decided to chime in:
The fact is there are between $60-80 Billion in road needs in NC. At the current rate it will take 60 years to meet those needs. I-77 has not been around that long. We traveled to Winston-Salem to visit my grandparents and took the 4 lane I-85 to Old 64 to W-S. Roads cost money and I agree with you I don’t like tolls but we need more suggestions on where the money will come from to build and maintain the roads since they are needed. The Transportation transition committee for Governor McCrory studied the issue very carefully and reported back to the Governor that we need more roads with the increasing population and that he needs to make it clear and say it loud that we don’t print money in NC and we need to find ways to improve our system of roads which are the 2nd most miles in the whole country with around 80,000 miles of state maintained roads. It is a big state.
I-77 through Lake Norman has been around nearly 40 years and has never been widened. For most people, that counts as long time. Vast stretches of I-85 have been widened, including through Salisbury and a $150M project adding lanes up to Concord. According to the FHWA, North Carolina has around 220K lane miles, ranking it 17th. Rep Neumann is confusing the miles of state-owned roads, where NC ranks second behind Texas. NCDOT is in the business of owning roads, making us a net source of federal roads funding.
Remember the Hot Lanes are optional – You make the choice to use them or not. If you have 3 or more people in the car then use of the HOT lane is free
Yes I understand the HOT lanes are “optional” but we who have studied the HOT model know that with the exisiting 2 “free lanes” (we actually aleady pay for with our gas tax) and the continued population growth to our area, it will be impossible to move on them during rush hours and workers/taxpayers will be forced into paying up to $1 per mile just to get to work. Look….it’s a huge tax increase and the workers who drive daily will be hurt the most. The do nothings have nowhere to be and can choose when they drive and are not in any hurry to get to work or a meeting on time. Expanding 77 should be a top priority for the state and those of us who live and work in the area are being manipulated and drained of yet more after tax income via the HOT lane tax.
Comparing HOT lanes and double taxation is like comparing apples and orangutans. The money from taxes would have to exist (it won’t for 15+ years) and the toll money would have to be more than you need and (excess) for them to be a valid comparison
Reality in the universe I live in: there is an estimated $20 BILLION dollar shortfall between current and project revenues and what we need to repair or replace hundreds of substandard bridges, maintain existing roads, AND build new capacity over the next 20 years. GOP majorities have capped the gas tax and cars are becoming more efficient and an increasing number are/will be running on alternative energy. How are we going to pay for that?
Do you understand how the majority of the toll road cost is funded and the funding mechanism from the federal government and state sources that constitute the “seed” funding? That is the problem with your comparison.
So (name redacted), I count you as a vote for delaying the improvement of I-77 for 15+ years…when we can pay for it, possibly. Think about how much earlier those workers will be getting up to go to work and from it in the meantime. I’ll leave it to the liberals to spend money we don’t have. Absent a viable solution to more funding (and not one has been offered in this thread), I cannot agree with your position which delays the road for 15+ years. It will be most harmful to those you seem to be concerned with and for the economic development of our region. All for now…
We are the largest city in the US without a completed outer belt and we are the largest city in NC with the worst roads yet we are one of the most taxed states. I would live to know where all the money goes. Not roads, schools. We keep sending our reps from the lake to help us here with our roads but yet all of you have your own agenda and I have yet to see what you or Jeff Tarte have done.
I can think of a few things: 1) Moving North Carolina from #44 to #17 in taxation burden through sales and income tax cuts 2) passing HB 817 which will accelerate road building across the state and move to a fairer formula 3) medical malpractice reform that has reduced lawsuits and malpractice insurance rates, 4) regulatory reform that has helped businesses remain in business, 5) tort reform, 6) expanding Charter School and other education options. To sum it up, we fulfilled every promise we made in 2010 and 2012 and North Carolina is better for it.
With regards to #2, then let’s rank a general purpose lane project according to the “fairer formula” and see where it falls. Absent this, Mr. Speaker, your claims of “15 years” and “no money” are unsubstantiated.
Last month saw the formation of a new political organization, the Lake Norman Conservatives. The LNC was created by former high-ranking board members of the North Mecklenburg Republican Women. Previously under their leadership the NMRW quickly grew to be the establishment organization for area Republicans.
The genesis of the Lake Norman Conservatives was the founders’ disaffection for the way the establishment handled the toll issue. Despite an anti-toll plank in the official NCGOP platform, some prominent Republicans remain staunch toll advocates. Faced with the choice of supporting personalities or their principles, apparently the LNC have chosen the latter.
This split mirrors a disconnect between the elected and the electorate. For instance, before the November election the Davidson Town Board “unanimously and enthusiastically” supported toll lanes. Yet, a concurrent survey by Davidson College showed 56% percent of residents opposed toll lanes on I-77, the only negative response in the survey. A year earlier a town-funded study concluded 53% of residents felt I-77 tolls were “not at all important,” again the most negative response in the survey. So, despite a year of advocating tolls, the Davidson Board failed to move their constituents a single iota toward their position. Not coincidentally, some charter members of the LNC live in Davidson.
The Lake Norman Conservatives have planned an ambitious first meeting: a forum for all U.S. Senate candidates, scheduled for Jan 30th. The event is free but an RSVP is recommended.
They must have some pull, because they have attendance confirmation from four of the five candidates. All four of those candidates- Greg Brannon, Bill Flynn, Heather Grant, and Mark Harris- have publicly stated their opposition to tolling. (We wonder if that’s more than coincidence.) Thom Tillis remains the sole candidate still advocating tolling. An invitation has been sent but as of this writing Tillis has not confirmed his attendance.
If you’re a conservative, you might be hoping the LNC will bring Republicans back to their purported roots of limited government and fiscal responsibility. If you’re a Republican, you’re probably hoping the party can heal fissures like these. And if you’re a Democrat, you’re probably enjoying the show.
But if you’re like us, you hope our government, regardless of party, will do more listening and less advocating. Perhaps the Lake Norman Conservatives are a step in that direction.
As recently as this past October state officials were saying the I-77 toll financials made absolute sense, proposals were due at the end of this year, and construction could start as early as Spring 2014. The I-77 toll lanes had a tectonic inevitability, at least in the minds of advocates. “Tolls are a done deal” was a common refrain on the campaign stump.
But lately new fault lines have opened up. Though slight tremors right now, we’re wondering if the toll plan will suffer at a Richter-scale shakeup next year.
First, the proposal submittal date has been delayed. Again. Now proposals are due in March, with the contract award in May. You may recall when we first started this blog that proposals were due back in June. That was pushed to October, then December, then January. In fact the I-77 toll plan has been one of continual delays. Originally proposed in 2010, construction was supposed to have been completed by 2013.
In addition to raising serious questions about how well the contract negotiations are proceeding, these delays undermine one of the main justifications for tolls, namely that we can get them now. We have been listening to the “tolls now” rationale for nearly four years. Construction completion remains three years away, a mirage that continually recedes into the future.
Second, we’ve noticed a repositioning among some state officials. In November Senator Jeff Tarte mentioned he was looking to form a commission to review the P3 contract. Most noteworthy, he talked about including staunch toll opponents Dave Gilroy and Danny Phillips as part of the team. Including those two sends a clear message Tarte is looking for a critical review, not a rubber stamp. Also, in a departure from past conversations, in recent Facebook posts Tarte has proposed alternative transportation funding in lieu of tolls. At recent meeting he publicly questioned if tolls are the right way to fund our roads in the future.
This raises serious speculation. Are the financials not panning out after all? Are the private companies demanding even more taxpayer dollars to “buy down” the toll revenues they must generate year after year? Do the private companies want the taxpayer shouldering even more risk? A “yes” answer to any of these obliterates the remaining justifications for tolling, i.e. the private company assuming risk, and leveraging public money with private capital.
We’ve said from the jump the financials make no sense. According to one commissioner’s estimates, toll revenues would have to exceed $30M/yr. That works out to over $200 annually for every man, woman and child in the Lake Norman region. Perhaps the private companies are just now figuring this out.
As the reality of the gravity-defying financials begins to sink in, we hope our elected officials will take a second look at this plan and engage state and NCDOT officials to develop a general purpose alternative. (There is a path forward without CRTMPO (formerly MUMPO), but that’s a subject for another blog post.) The revamped transportation funding process rewards cost-effective projects that relieve congestion with a high priority. We can think of none more deserving.
It didn’t take long for controversy to rear its ugly head in Huntersville. Shortly after Thom Tillis swore in the new Huntersville Commissioners, Mayor Jill Swain asked for a vote on her committee “recommendations.”
Other towns give the voter a voice on where officials will serve. For instance, the top vote-getter in Cornelius serves on the critical CRTMPO (formerly MUMPO) committee. Not so Huntersville. Swain makes the appointments… on her own.
The result: despite dropping from the top vote-getter to fifth, despite this egregious action against the people she is supposed represent, Sarah McAulay is back on CRTMPO.
In fact, the Julian/Neely/McAulay slate fared pretty well. Out of thirteen committee assignments, they were appointed to seven though they finished three/four/five in the election. Swain appointed herself to the Metropolitan Transit Commission, a staff member to another post and left one appointment open (we’ll get to that in a minute).
Swain limited the non-slate candidates to a single committee each. Mayor Pro-Tem Melinda Bales was appointed to the ineffectual LNTC. Local businessman Danny Phillips, the second highest vote-getter, was appointed to the Arts & Sciences committee. (Both Bales and Phillips received more votes than Swain.) Freshman Rob Kidwell was appointed to the Olde Huntersville Historical Society.
Meanwhile McAulay will serve on three committees, Julian and Neely two each. These include powerhouse assignments like Planning, Chamber of Commerce, and CRTMPO. Swain decided to leave vacant the CHEC (Community of Huntersville Education Collaborative), a seat Melinda Bales had filled. Bales, the only commissioner with school-age children, had served on the CHEC previously and has been credited with rebuilding and revitalizing it.
Perhaps because of that last point Bales spoke up forcefully about the impropriety of the whole process. But in a sign of things to come, Bales, Phillips and Kidwell voted against Swain’s recommendation and Julian, Neely and McAulay voted for. Swain broke the tie.
What does this have to do with toll lanes on I-77? We caught a glimpse of how Huntersville politics works. The results speak for themselves: the voice of the voter is ignored after Election Day.
UPDATE: Corrected number of committees assigned.