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.

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