North Carolinians Declare Toll Roads “Highway Robbery”

<a href="" target="_blank">Interstate Highway 77</a> stretches from Cleveland, Ohio, to Columbia, South Carolina. Red marks Cornelius, where the protest against toll roads took place in North Carolina. (<a href="" target="_blank">Google Maps</a>)
Interstate Highway 77 stretches from Cleveland, Ohio, to Columbia, South Carolina. Red marks Cornelius, where the protest against toll roads took place. (Google Maps)

With such an appealing name, who could be against public-private partnerships (P3s)? Well, when it comes to toll roads and segregated “hot” lanes, a vocal group of North Carolinians want nothing to do with what they characterize as a crony grab enabled by the state’s establishment politicians.

Led by Tea Party activist Chuck Suter, 70 protesters gathered on Friday afternoon at Exit 28 of Interstate 77 in Cornelius, North Carolina, for a May Day call to Republican Governor Pat McCrory (video). Participants demanded an immediate halt to the US$655 million I-77 Express Lanes Project and a widening of the interstate highway for security and to accommodate traffic.

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They appear to have residents on their side, and local newspaper Cornelius Today ran an online poll this week, in which 93 percent of 700 respondents backed a “time out” on the toll-lanes plan. Frustration over a lack of accountability has also been brewing since 2013, when those involved in the planning declined to hear citizen concerns in a public forum.

Such is the congestion at present, Suter describes I-77 as a parking lot. However, his contention is that the proposal on the table is both contrary to constituent wishes and dangerous. He fears that toll lanes will stifle any evacuation, should there be problems at either of the two local power plants.

“Fifty years is a long time,” reads a statement from advocacy group Widen I-77, in support of the protest and in reference to an ominous lease period for once the project is functioning. They have initiated a petition — with 755 signatories at this point — and contend that toll lanes create a socioeconomic division and mere façade of benefits: “Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization … is on record as saying HOT lanes will have ‘minimal impact on travel times.’”

A 50-year deal for toll lanes in North Carolina has provoked heated opposition. (Tommy Kerr)
A 50-year deal for toll lanes in North Carolina has provoked heated opposition, climaxing in this Friday’s protest. (Tommy Kerr)

Slated to begin this year and be completed in 2018, Texas-based Cintra US has won the top contract and is recruiting subcontractors to proceed. They plan to “enhance” 26 miles of I-77 and have managed to negotiate an enviable deal: if toll revenues do not match estimates, North Carolina taxpayers will bail them out to the tune of $75 million.

The protest did not go unnoticed by the state’s Transportation Department, as they disputed “misinformation circulating.”

In particular, their press release challenges evacuation concerns among the protesters: “additional lanes through this project will help tremendously in the case of a formal emergency or evacuation declaration.” They also assert that they can suspend the tolling element during emergencies.

Suter remains defiant and was pleased with the turnout and media attention, including two press helicopters. He believes there has been waste at the top, so to fund a widening of I-77, locals “have already paid for this road in spades through the gas tax.”

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