North Carolina’s First Toll Road

Earlier this year the North Carolina Turnpike Authority announced the completion of the state’s first toll road.

Costing approximately $1B, the Triangle Expressway is an 18mile stretch of six lane road connecting Durham to Holly Springs.  Unlike the proposed HOT lanes on I-77, the TriEx is a publicly operated road.  The state paid for approximately two thirds by issuing bonds, and the remaining one third comes from a federal loan.  Tolls are a comparatively modest 14.5 cents per mile, give or take.

The initial traffic projection was 54,000 vehicles per day.  This was subsequently

Triangle Expressway at approximately 10am on a weekday morning.

Triangle Expressway at approximately 10am on a weekday morning.

downgraded to 20,000 vpd, fewer cars than West Catawba Avenue in Cornelius carries.  So far, it carries about 6,000vpd, or about what I-77 carries in 45 minutes.

Because traffic counts are so low, the General Assembly recently pledged $25 million per year for 30 years (if need be) to cover debt service and operating costs.

Transportation officials note these low traffic numbers “indicate the extent to which the tollroad is being built to cater to future traffic arising from development rather than existing traffic.”

So the state has spent a billion dollars to build a road that someone might drive on someday. Nearly twenty years from now, traffic counts are expected to reach 40,000.

I-77 at exit 28 carries more than twice that today.

P3 High School

All of our previous posts have been staid and fact-based.  But this analogy came to my attention and I could not resist resorting to satire.

Today at the Chamber of Commerce meeting, we learned the advantages of HOT lanes:
1) The public-private partnership (P3) model makes use of private financing and therefore minimizes public investment.
2) The P3 approach accelerates implementation.  If we had to wait for the normal public approach, it could take as long as twenty years before anything is built.
3) The managed lane concept, utilizing congestion pricing, ensures at least one lane will remain congestion-free for the life of the contract.  Even if the general purpose lanes become more congested, the HOT lanes will never become congested.
4) HOT lanes offer motorists an option for those who wish to pay to avoid congestion.

While wideni77 disagrees these are advantages at all (and with the validity of #2 in general), let’s set that aside for a moment and say, for sake of argument, we do agree.  And further, let’s say we’re so enthusiastic that we think this is a good approach to governance in general.  In fact, let’s go so far as to say we should use this approach for other critical public services… like education.

So class is now in session. The narrative goes like this:

Our schools are congested.  And even though they’ve been congested for years and we haven’t built a new school in decades and our region has a growth rate rivaling something you’d find in a petri dish, we just don’t have the money to build new schools.  We’re told, sadly but firmly, we’re not going to have any money for another twenty years.  But we have this great new idea to solve the whole problem: we’ll partner with a private company to build/finance/operate a new school.  We’ll call it P3HS.

We’d have language in the contract to make sure P3HS meets all the applicable standards for curriculum and safety and free lunches and girl’s lacrosse.  In fact, it would look just like any other public school but with one big difference: we’re going to limit enrollment so it never gets overcrowded.

How are we going to do this? We’ll charge a tuition, that’s how.  Remember, it’s a tuition- not a tax- because you can keep your kid in the gulag school for free.  And to make sure P3HS never ever becomes overcrowded, we’ll tweak that tuition based on how crammed the old school is.

We’ll use those tuition dollars to pay for the school and give the private company a little something in return for their trouble.

There’s a number of advantages to this approach vs just building a regular old school.

First, by using all that private money, we’re not going to have to put up many taxpayer dollars. Instead we can use that tax money for more important things like a $750M bridge to the Outer Banks or a $1B highway from Durham to Holly Springs.

Second, because we won’t have to wait for CMS to get around to it, P3HS will be built a whole lot sooner. How cool is that?

Third, because we’ll limit enrollment, P3HS will never be overcrowded. We’ll always have at least one school that remains congestion-free.  You see, if we had good free schools that might make folks want to move here and then the free schools would quickly get crowded all over again.

Fourth, P3HS offers a choice to parents who don’t want their kids going to a jam-packed madhouse.

And we’ll throw in a bonus advantage: P3HS will be good for attracting business to the region because those executives can drop off their kids before they hop on the HOT lane to the airport.

Okay, show of hands: all in favor?

Class dismissed.

An Open Letter to the Lake Norman Citizen

Dear Lake Norman Citizen-

Over the past several weeks we’ve made an earnest effort to bring the HOT lane issue to the public’s attention.  We’ve cited references extensively, shown where our numbers come from and freely admit it when we don’t know something.

Yet you continue to pillory a citizen’s group that has no other agenda except to stop what it sees as a terrible thing about to happen to their community.

We held an information session and over 100 people showed up.  Though we cannot recall a time when this has ever happened before, your reportage led with Congressman Bill Brawley’s comments.  You editorialized saying “a hush fell over the crowd” when he spoke, as if we were hearing the transportation equivalent of the Beatitudes when in reality people strained to listen because the gentleman did not have a microphone.

You failed to print letters to the editor regarding your mis-characterization of the meeting.  You failed to report the positive exchange between wideni77 and the NCDOT.
You got your facts wrong in your sneering editorial when you mis-reported Mark Washburn of the Charlotte Observer never gets up to the Lake Norman area.  He lives here.
You’ve already been found to be in the tank for HOT lanes by another knowledgeable source.

When we questioned your objectivity to a commissioner, you sent out this email (in part) to all of the town commissioners and mayors (without bothering to cc us):

I do not believe in activist journalism. We have done extensive research on what our obligation is to cite everyone’s “side” of the equation, and frankly, while the group does have some valid points, they get lost in the rhetoric and blatant falsehoods that have been publicly represented. I don’t discredit them. They discredit themselves with their approach.

Through all of this, in the interest of maintaining a positive tone, we have not responded.

It’s one thing to go behind our back.  But when you report in your newspaper that we stated it would cost over $300M to widen a five mile stretch of road, and call our credibility- and earnestness- into question, we must respond.

In our presentation (I-77 Info Session) we stated phase 1 of the problem is adding a lane from exit 23 to 28 (slide 4). We stated the cost to widen from 23- 28 is ~$50M (slides 4, 13, and 15).  But the HOT lane plan, lardered up with all kinds of other improvements including widening lanes in downtown Charlotte, will end up costing over $300M for the Mecklenburg portion.  Thus, the state- and Lake Norman commuters- will end up spending over $300M to fix a $50M problem (slide 13).  Apparently, in your zeal to promote HOT lanes, you missed that logic.

You brag about the “extensive research” you’ve done but have never emailed us with any questions (unlike your competition).  You could have asked to meet with us. You could have asked questions during the information session.  You could have done any number of things in the interest of honest journalism before you published your article. But you didn’t.

We think you owe us an apology.

The irony is your paper bills itself as “your town, your newspaper,”  and calls itself the Lake Norman Citizen.

Here’s to better understanding,,
A Citizen’s Group

The Lake Norman Citizen vs Objective Reporting

Hello Neighbor-
If you’re like me, there’s few times in your life when you have first-hand knowledge of an event that gets reported in the news.  There’s even fewer times when a journalist reveals how he feels about an organization that’s been in the news.  And at least for me, there’s never been a time when a journalist wrote down an unvarnished version of how he feels about that organization.  Until now.

Below is an email Lake Norman Citizen editor Andrew Warfield sent to every LKN Mayor and Commissioner as well as Senator Tarte and Speaker Tillis. He didn’t bother to cc wideni77 even though we were the subject, nor did he ever email us to ask for any clarification about the “blatant falsehoods” we’ve been propagating.

Please keep this email in mind when you read another Citizen article about HOT lanes, and wideni77 in particular:

“I’m not in the tank for anything. If rolling out what the state’s program is is regarded as in the tank, then guilty. I know this is what they think because their approach is anything that doesn’t cite them chapter and verse is anti-them. We have been reporting the facts and reality of this for two years now and this is no different. I am happy to print any letters providing they are not based on statements of fact that may or may not be, indeed, fact. We roll out the real details — not anybody’s side — and let the public decide for themselves. That’s how real newspapering works. I recognize that 30 years of growing sensationalism, side-picking and not caring what i reported so long as it makes a good story has taken it’s toll, but we are old school. Lay out the official program and let the public do what the public does with it. I do not believe in activist journalism. We have done extensive research on what our obligation is to cite everyone’s “side” of the equation, and frankly, while the group does have some valid points, they get lost in the rhetoric and blatant falsehoods that have been publicly represented. I don’t discredit them. They discredit themselves with their approach. And to say that this issue has snuck up on the public is a flat out lie. I have reported on this topic since it was first introduced to the LNTC by Lynn Purnell, in the upstairs meeting room at Cornelius Town Hall 2 1/2 years ago. The public and elected officials were engaged and were silent on the issue. I don’t care if there are HOT lanes or not. Our job is to report the news and what the government is up to. We don’t get in bed with anybody. Just because other outlets are shirking their responsibilities to jump on a story for sensational value or are just too lazy to research it for themselves is not my problem.

Behind Closed Doors

You’ve probably heard that the reason we must build HOT lanes is because the state has no money for general purpose lanes.

The current HOT lane project is estimated to cost $550M, including up to $170M of taxpayer funds.  (By comparison, rough estimates put the cost of general purpose lanes at $80 -$130M.)  We’re told that if we do not build HOT lanes, the $170M goes away.

We’re told that, but we preferred to find out for ourselves.

So we asked for a detailed breakdown of where that $170M is coming from.  And asked.  And asked.  We asked the NCDOT and received this response:

“Please keep in mind that the $170 M figure is the maximum participation by NCDOT.  The level of funding will be determined by the bidding process.  The needed funding would consist of $27.6 M of State Mobility funds and the remainder would be federal funds, most likely National Highway Performance Program funds, along with the required state matching funds.”

Unfortunately that vagueness didn’t answer our question, so we tried another route:

The LKN Mayors organized a series of one-on-one information sessions with the town commissioners and NCDOT officials yesterday.  So the meeting could be closed to the public, no more than two commissioners from any given town could attend the same session.  This was done so the commissioners would be “free from public lobbying.”

We asked the Mayors if they could share any information with us.  As of this post, Cornelius Mayor Rinker and Davidson Mayor Woods have not responded, but we did receive this “answer” from Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain:


We will be working with State and NCDOT representatives and the involved consultants to schedule informational presentations to citizens, providing answers to questions that many of your elected officials asked at earlier meetings on behalf of the citizens they represent.

We hope you will join others in attending these future meetings

Thank you for you interest.

Jill Swain
Mayor, Town of Huntersville”

Next week, the Lake Norman Transportation Commission will be hosting an information session for those same commissioners.  This meeting will feature a Parsons Brinkerhoff consultant who leads that company’s “national managed lanes practice.”  (This rather begs the question- if they are trying to develop general purpose lane alternatives, why are they bringing in a HOT lane expert?)

That meeting is closed to the public as well, but you can read the press release about it here.

In the meantime, we’ll keep trying to open doors.

UPDATE (2/6):
With regards to the LNTC meeting, the press release states the meeting is “for elected officials.” Chuck Travis, Chair of the LNTC is quoted as saying “It’s important for all elected officials to attend a session like this one.”  On Monday LNTC Executive Director Bill Thunberg forwarded an email titled “Elected Officials and Staff” to the LKN towns.  In that email he reminded them they needed to register for the event. A link was provided to register on line.

Now, after we posted this yesterday, we are told the public is invited.  In the interest of being accurate, we wish to correct the above and note that the LNTC is not a closed session.  And we wish you good luck trying to discover the secret handshake.