Iredell County commissioners have taken a cold view of the plan for HOT — High Occupancy Toll — lanes being proposed for a portion of Interstate 77.
Speaking in response to a request to approve projects for the county’s Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP), commissioners said the private/public plan to widen an eight-mile stretch of I-77 between north Mecklenburg County and exit 36 in south Iredell is wrongheaded and unfair.
While the commissioners were unanimous in their feelings that the highway needs to be wider, they also expressed feelings that it should be done the old-fashioned way.
The HOT plan calls for a private enterprise to cover most of the costs associated with the construction of the new lanes (one in each direction) and then to charge a toll for the use of the lane.
Commissioners joined a chorus of local residents who have been against the toll plan and in favor of a general-purpose widening of the road.
Board Chairman Steve Johnson and Commissioner Ken Robertson said a kind of political favors exchange system has largely accounted for Iredell — and other counties in the Charlotte region — getting short shrift on road projects by the North Carolina General Assembly and other major decision-makers in Raleigh.
“Political cronyism has resulted in roads being built where their friends are,” Johnson said, “and not where the cars are.”
Robertson said the widening of I-77 has been on the minds of almost everyone who has driven between Charlotte and Mooresville in the past decade or more.
“This has been on the long-term wish-list for a long time,” he said, and added that it has never moved near the top of an actual to-do list because of a “complicated formula” used by the North Carolina Department of Transportation to determine which projects get green-lighted.
But, as Johnson said, part of equation that doesn’t get mentioned is the quid-pro-quo of politics.
“For decades, roads were built on a political spoils basis and through patronage,” he said. The problem for counties like Iredell in such a scheme, Robertson said, is that it has been Republican in a time of Democrats.
“McCrory doesn’t want to go back to that,” Robertson said with mixed feelings. He explained, with a half-tortured countenance, that now that both chambers of the General Assembly and the Governor’s Mansion are controlled by Republicans, the road-making people are going legit.
Robertson also said that one rationale for not undertaking the widening project is that it would have gobbled up a lot of dollars that have been spread around Iredell.
“The thinking was that if we did this one project, not many others would get done,” he said. “But traffic (on I-77) continues to get worse.”
Commissioner Renee Griffith is the Iredell representative at the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO), at which the county’s LRTP will be considered.
Among Griffith’s concerns is one regarding the future of the HOT lanes. She said that if the state eventually decides to widen I-77 even further, taxpayers could be on the hook for losses incurred by the private company overseeing the lane.
The HOT lane idea generated a lot of interest last year when the plan was advanced by Iredell state Sen. Chris Carney and state Rep. Grey Mills — both of whom have since left the General Assembly — as a way of fast-tracking the widening of the road.
It has since moved into the passing lane.
“It has a lot of momentum in Raleigh,” said Iredell Planning Director Joey Raczkowski.
“It is on an aggressive schedule and by late summer it will be a go.”
But not with the blessing of the Iredell County Board of Commissioners. They voted unanimously to approve the LRTP but only after amending the line item regarding the widening project: changing the HOT lane proposal to one of “general purpose lanes.”