Last week’s CRTPO meeting wasn’t a giant leap for LKN transportation, but it was a few steps in the right direction.
Two major votes were taken last week, and they both turned out well for Cornelius. The first (and the one that got all the press) was the funding swap for hardening the shoulders on I-77; the second went under the radar but is no less important locally.
1: Shoulder Hardening
One of the short-term recommendations coming out of the I-77 Advisory Group was hardening the shoulders on I77 to allow regular vehicular traffic during peak times. Right now the plan is to have the shoulders connect from exit to exit (i.e. from 28 to 25) as opposed to a continuous lane:
While a continuous lane would be preferable, my $0.02 is we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This project will help move local traffic. Extending the southbound ramp from Exit 23 should especially help the SB bottleneck entirely.
The project cost is estimated at $47 million. NC had some money left over from their federal allocation in a bucket for congestion mitigation called CMAQ. However, CMAQ funds could not be used for this type of project. So NCDOT proposed a funding swap- basically switching out the source of funds for some twenty projects touching every part of the region.
The potential for squabbling and disagreement was huge. Of course, when it comes to CRTPO the only vote that really matters is Charlotte, but grumbling from neighboring towns could’ve given Charlotte reason for pause. Mayor Washam contacted Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles to make sure we had Charlotte’s support. Word has it even Governor Cooper called Lyles for the same reason.
The vote passed 15- 2, with Charlotte concurring. I’ll talk about the two dissenters in a moment.
Cintra was less than thrilled, announcing in a statement that they were “very disappointed” and, pursuant to the non-compete clause in the contract, the project would be permitted only “with fair compensation.”
Let’s look at that non-compete clause for a moment. In toll parlance an improvement that triggers compensation is called an Unplanned Revenue Impacting Facility (URIF). If we were to build a URIF- like adding general purpose lanes on I77- Cintra would be due compensation. So the question becomes, is shoulder hardening excluded from the general definition of a URIF? From the contract, here’s the answer:
NCDOT’s reasoning is limiting shoulder use to peak hours constitutes an “intelligent transportation system “ (i.e. managed lane) and therefore is exempt from the non-compete. Also excluded from the non-compete are “localized improvements that add lanes”, which is exactly what this is. (I suppose it doesn’t help Cintra’s cause that they’ve long touted the toll lanes as providing “an easier commute” and the improvement we’re talking about here handles local traffic, so by their own definition it doesn’t compete.)
Methinks Cintra doth protest too much.
The question arose if NCDOT ever consulted Cintra about shoulder hardening. NCDTO did not because this is a separate project from the I77 toll lanes. It would be like consulting Cintra about widening Catawba; it simply wasn’t necessary.
Another bit of good news: Governor Cooper released a statement that at his direction “and with significant input from local leaders and communities, the Department of Transportation is pushing to ultimately have state operation of the I-77 project.”
That’s a paradigm shift from his predecessor who made the bizarre request of CRTPO to “affirm the managed lanes strategy” and then proceeded to tell them they could lose all of their funding if they didn’t.
Of course, any attempt to cancel the contract has been held hostage by the legislature, but that’s a topic for a different post.
To anticipate a few questions:
Q: How will emergency vehicles access accidents?
A: Per the contract, emergency vehicles can use the toll lanes.
Q: What if my car breaks down while driving on the shoulder?
A: In that case, the shoulder would be used as a normal shoulder and no longer as a travel lane.
Q: When will the project be completed?
A: Hopefully by next summer, which is lightspeed in transportation time.
Q: Are there any other votes CRTPO must make before we get the green light?
A: Yes. They must vote to approve an Environmental Assessment (EA) which is due this Fall. Hopefully this vote is perfunctory.
Q: Will Cintra sue?
A: No word on that. If they do, NCDOT has lawyers on staff, not retainer, and NCDOT already has a legal opinion on this.
2: Discretionary Funding
Another vote that didn’t receive much press but was nonetheless hugely important was a vote to approve discretionary funding for a list of projects.
As unlikely as it sounds, CRTPO actually had some money left over in one of their buckets. A lot of money- like $58 million. So last spring a key committee (the TCC) put out a call for projects. Fortunately, Assistant Town Manager Wayne Herron chairs that committee, and he jumped right in with $22 million worth for Cornelius.
This additional funding would cover potential costs overruns to the many projects we have in the pipeline. Specifically, moving the electrical substation for the Northcross Extension could cost $2 million more than anticipated, and the retaining walls and drainage for the proposed US 21/Catawba intersection is far more involved- about $6 million more.
There’s a built-in contingency of 45%, so hopefully we’ve bounded the potential cost overruns. In fact, the town is hopeful we’ll come in under the latest estimates (with contingency). If that’s the case, the town’s share would decrease by 20% (since we’re putting up 20%), which means less bond money we’d have to float.
Given there was $56 million in submitted projects and CRTPO had $58 million to spend, the TCC recommended approving all projects.
Not everyone agreed, and the vote was not without some drama.
Indian Trail has long wanted a stretch of S Monroe to be widened, and back in 2011 they were willing to pony up $10 million to make it happen quicker. Since then the rubric for scoring projects changed completely, and their project still has not been built. So they pulled their $10 million.
At the meeting Indian Trail made a substitute motion: take $8 million from Cornelius and move it to the Monroe St project (U4714B). After all, Cornelius was set to receive almost half of the discretionary funding. How could that be fair?
However, neither Indian Trail (nor Union County) ever bothered to submit their project for discretionary funding in the Spring, a point that was made in triplicate by the LKN delegation. So the substitute motion failed 6 -11 (Union County, Stallings, Matthews, Indian Trail and two others voted in favor). The original motion passed, 14- 3, with Union County, Indian Trail and Stallings in dissent.
Union County and Indian Trail also voted against the I77 shoulder hardening re-allocation.
I rather struggle with that.
I know that, were I a delegate (I’m an alternate), and several million dollars became available that would help something in Union County and not affect any projects in LKN, I would vote for it in a heartbeat. That’s what regional organizations do.
But, drama aside, last Wednesday was a huge win for LKN and Cornelius in particular.
I’ve been going to CRTPO meetings on and off since 2013, and I don’t have many fond memories. Maybe that’s starting to change.
At the very least, last Wednesday was a good start.