Wait… so there IS money?

“I think the takeaway is that the option that is on the table, based on all the governmental framework we have in place and the current funding mechanisms available, the choice is (a high-occupancy toll lane) project … or no improvements to I-77 for 15 or 20 years.”
US Senate Candidate Thom Tillis

“If the option is to have toll lanes and start in the near future or wait 25-plus years for general purpose lanes, the decision is a no-brainer.”
–Cornelius Mayor-Elect Chuck Travis

“North Carolina’s Department of Transportation, though, says it would be 25 years or so before I-77 would be widened with traditional funding sources.”
–Charlotte Observer, May 28 2013

 “It was just reiterated unequivocally by our legislative leaders that this (HOT lanes) is our one shot to get this done. This is it. That was underscored with bold type and exclamation points.”
–Cornelius Mayor Lynette Rinker

For years now, it’s been drummed in our heads:  there is no money for roads.  Never mind the construction going on elsewhere, for us in LKN it’s toll lanes or nothing for the next couple of decades.

As evidenced above, at all levels of government elected officials have bought into this despite the fact that the state recently changed the road funding process.  With a greater emphasis on reducing congestion, a general purpose solution should get a higher priority than it has in the past.

The same holds true at the local level: MUMPO’ s first roll up of projects saw a GP lane solution leap from 93 all the way up to 25.  We think that’s still too low (they gave it a head-scratching 57/100 for reducing congestion while HOT lanes got a 73/100), but considering where the GP project was, this is a couple of quantum leaps.  In fact it’s high enough to go to the second round.

Now, just when the stars are beginning to align, we came across this comment in an Aug 8 memo from MUMPO to NCDOT:

“Finally, NCDOT has received multiple citizen requests to stop the current project and instead implement general purpose lanes in select locations.  The (citizen) responses seem to focus on the lack of public funds to support general purpose lanes. The TCC (Technical Coordinating Committee of MUMPO) strongly feels the HOT lane element brings a new paradigm to transportation investment in North Carolina.”

So all this time, toll lanes- and 50 year contracts and private equity- are not about lack of funding, but rather ‘a new paradigm’, a concept so squishy it’s virtually impossible to debate!  The memo goes on to talk about how HOT lanes are a better “long term investment” and emphasize “multi-occupant use.”  There is no mention of the best use of the taxpayer dollar, and it conveniently ignores the fact that HOT lanes actually discourage carpooling by requiring 3 or more occupants per vehicle.

Nevertheless, now that there could be light at the end of the funding tunnel, the TCC claims all along they want HOT lanes for esoteric reasons.  Forget about getting traffic moving, or re-investing tax dollars in the community.  This is all about being new and cool and sexy, at least from a transportation standpoint.

The comment concludes with a request to give HOT lanes priority before “responding to requests for general purpose lanes.”

It’s signed by Robert Cook, MUMPO Secretary.  You may wish to drop him a line at rwcook@ci.charlotte.nc.us

NCDOT Needs to Consider Alternatives to HOT Lanes

We’ve had some time to review the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) memo over the weekend, and among the many objections raised one caught our eye in particular.

A 1997 federal court ruled an agency is not permitted “to contrive a purpose so slender as to define competing ‘reasonable alternatives’ out of consideration.”  Yet, the memo asserts, that’s exactly what the NCDOT has done.

The stated the purpose of the HOT lane project is to “address the immediate need” of “travel time reliability from Uptown Charlotte to the Lake Norman area….”  In their public presentations, the NCDOT touts ‘travel time reliability’ as the major benefit of HOT lanes.  Local officials and the Lake Norman Transportation Commission have all echoed this benefit with their bizarre “executives need to get to the airport on time” rationale.  But where else do we build a road so a couple people can hop on a plane in the morning?  This stated ‘need’ is conveniently confined to preclude anything but HOT lanes.

Similarly, the NCDOT touts an ‘immediate need’ for the project.  I-77 should have been widened a decade ago. Why only now, with the promise of private money, is there an ‘immediate need’?  If the need is immediate- and an actual congestion solution is needed now- what does that say about the NCDOT’s planning process?

During the public comment period one resident described choosing between the various flavors of HOT lanes as a choice between a hot poker in the right eye or a hot poker in the left eye. Like everything else with this project, the Environmental Assessment is being used as a bogus rationale to make HOT lanes a foregone conclusion.  There really is no choice.

Only this time, someone called them on it.

While the SELC memo contains no mention of litigation, the NCDOT ignores it at their own peril; the SELC litigated the Monroe Bypass to a dead stop. In practical terms, the NCDOT is probably facing a choice between a lawsuit or a re-do of their threadbare, going-through-the-motions environmental assessment.  If they choose the latter, based on the above it should include a general purpose lane alternative.

We figure a couple weeks for the NCDOT to figure out what they want to do, another couple to let a contract, 4-5 months for an environmental assessment, and another 30 day public comment period.  In all, a project delay of at least six months.

In the meantime, we should be demanding the general purpose lane alternative.

Let the drumbeat begin.

PS The memo was written on behalf of the Catawba Riverkeeper and Clear Air Carolina.

SELC Fires Warning Shot Across HOT Lane Bow

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), the same folks who sued the NCDOT over the Monroe Bypass, fired off a blistering 21-page memo to the NCDOT today.

The memo takes the NCDOT to task for the improper time horizon of their Environmental Assessment. The assessment’s horizon only goes out to 2017, the same year the HOT lanes are supposed to open.  As we mentioned here, assessing the impact of something before it opens is… untrustworthy, to say the least.

The memo goes on to state that, given the HOT lanes are the first in the state, the first P3 project to be operated by a private company, and the first 50 year contract to such private company, the EA should be especially rigorous. (If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because you read that here.)  It calls for a greatly expanded scope, including a time horizon out to 2035 and an assessment of the impact to secondary roads.

The memo also says the City of Charlotte urged a longer time horizon and even the Technical Coordinating Committee of MUMPO (yes, MUMPO!) felt the horizon was inadequate.

For the past few weeks now, in an effort to ram this project through, HOT lane advocates have been saying this is a done deal. Re-doing the EA will take months.  Failure to do so will most likely result in an injunction.  Either way, this is far from over.

Candidates, are you listening?

You can download the memo here: 8-1-13 I-77 Comments to NCDOT.