• Controversy over I-77 tolls intensifies after election

    By: Jim Bradley


    CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The politics surrounding North Carolina Department of Transportation plans to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte is intensifying.  
    The project gives a private company a 50-year contract to build and run toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville.
    Opponents of the plan said they'll target elected officials who disagree with them.  
    "The fight just continues,” said Jim Puckett, a toll lane opponent and Mecklenburg County commissioner. “At some point, people will begin to realize there is probably a political price to pay."  
    Opponents may continue to attempt to field challengers to elected leaders who don't join in their call for the toll lane contract to be canceled, Puckett said.
    The mayor and several town commissioners were defeated in Huntersville on Election Day this month because of the toll lane issue.
    Now an ad is circulating that targets North Carolina Rep. Charles Jeter (R-Mecklenburg) and shows his picture and calls him "The man with the power to stop the tolls."
    It goes on to threaten that if Jeter doesn't join their cause, opponents will “work tirelessly to make sure you find yourself a different office..."
    Jeter announced this week he's trying to broker new talks on the toll lane issue that could include opponents, elected officials and the NCDOT.   
    Jeter isn't the only politician who could be hurt by the toll lane controversy.  
    Gov. Pat McCrory, who won northern Mecklenburg and southern Iredell counties handily in 2012, has so far been a strong supporter of the toll plan.  
    Political expert Michael Bitzer said that could cost him votes next year.
    "Oftentimes it is the energized, angry voter who tends to show up and could potentially spoil an election for a candidate," Bitzer said.  
    Toll opponents said "here's the line and if you cross it, we're going to come after you at the polls," Bitzer said.
    Puckett, a McCrory friend and supporter, said he believes the governor is underestimating the I-77 toll lane issue.  
    "I'm telling you, the base that has supported him is saying this, among all else, is the most important issue in this area.  Ignore the public at your own risk," Puckett said.  
    Despite the ramped-up efforts of toll lane opponents, there's no clear indication they're making progress with the leaders who will ultimately make the decision on the project.  
    Influential Mecklenburg Republican Sen. Bob Rucho said he backs the toll lanes, and another influential GOP senator, Bill Brawley, said he sees little appetite in Raleigh to cancel a contract that's already been signed.  
    "I think that decision would have to be made by a majority of the legislature and the governor, and I don't see the votes there to do it," Brawley said. 

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