Transportation, education and representation.
While the north Mecklenburg community dealt with many issues in 2018, those three categories grabbed the most attention and earned the dominant headlines.
On the transportation front, the future implementation of under-construction Express Lanes on Interstate 77 remained a hot topic of debate and discussion. Also in 2018, the vision for a widened N.C. 73 became a little less fuzzy while plans for new interstate exchanges at exits 23 and 25 shifted into sharp focus.
In education matters, expressed dissatisfaction with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) system’s lack of planned facilities in north Mecklenburg fueled efforts to pursue municipal-sponsored charters. In the meantime, two long-established charters and a prominent private school moved ahead with expansions.
And in elections determining north Mecklenburg’s representatives in the North Carolina General Assembly and the county board of commissioners, well-known incumbents were ousted.
Interstate 77: In response to opposition to the I-77 Express Lanes – a public-private partnership establishing tolled, or managed lanes, adjacent to general-purpose lanes on the interstate between Mooresville and Charlotte – Gov. Roy Cooper endorsed the creation of an I-77 Local Advisory Group to review options and submit suggestions for ways to amend the project.
The group – with representatives from Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson, Charlotte, Mooresville, Mecklenburg County, Iredell County and the chambers of commerce serving those areas – began meeting in January. During seven sessions from January to May, meeting with N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT), N.C. Turnpike Authority (NCTA) and consulting firm representatives – and with N.C. Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon participating in most of the discussions – the group reviewed options for cancelling or changing the project.
During discussions, the increased cost certainties, along with the logistical and timeframe uncertainties, associated with each suggested adjustment in the $647 million project were evaluated. In May, after probing details of the interstate project, repercussions of significant changes in the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners – the private firm providing the majority of funding for the project in exchange for 50 years of tolling authority – and the long list of unknowns affiliated with various proposed variations, most members of the group reluctantly endorsed the idea of eventually transitioning one express lane into a general purpose lane. The group also supported the idea of the state acquiring ownership and operational control of the new lanes.
In the months that followed, NCDOT and NCTA staff members explored the local suggestions and, in August, Trogdon reconvened the group to present his conclusions.
While stating the main objective will be “getting the state to ultimately operate the facility,” Trogdon reported major adjustments in the proposed scope and operation of the express lanes did not seem feasible in the near future. But he vowed to engage I-77 Mobility Partners and the N.C. General Assembly to seek incremental changes in the project – proposed tweaks that include hardening interstate shoulders to accommodate peak-time travel – while continuing “legal and fiscally responsible” efforts to add non-tolled vehicle capacity in the I-77 corridor.
Construction on the I-77 Express Lanes, which began in late 2015, is continuing. I-77 Mobility Partners missed a self-imposed goal to open the northern portion of the lanes – between Mooresville and Hambright Road in Huntersville – by the end of 2018. The northern section is now expected to open in the first quarter of 2019 and representatives of the company said the entire 26-mile project will open by mid to late summer.
N.C. 73: North Mecklenburg’s primary east-west corridor, N.C. 73, is scheduled for widening from Cabarrus County to N.C. 16 in Lincoln County. Right-of-way acquisition is planned to begin in 2020, with construction beginning in 2022. The route of the wider highway in western Huntersville – in terms of potential impact on residential areas near Blythe Landing and possible changes involving the Beatties Ford Road intersection – is the remaining unknown. NCDOT officials have said a final route plan will be unveiled in February.
Interstate exits: A two-bridge diverging diamond is coming at Exit 23 as part of a complete overhaul of the intersections involving I-77, U.S. 21 and Gilead Road. Right-of-way work is in progress and construction on the NCDOT project is scheduled to begin this year. It will include the implementation of a new traffic-control pattern limiting left turns at the Gilead/U.S. 21 intersection.
At Exit 25, a three-bridge system, with crossovers planned north and south of the existing N.C. 73 bridge to provide access route options for motorists, will be built. The NCDOT project is separate from the widening of N.C. 73 with construction scheduled to begin in 2020.
Municipal charters: On May 7, town boards in Huntersville and Cornelius voted to join Matthews and Mint Hill in exploring the possibility of municipally-operated charter schools. A lingering spat between the southern Mecklenburg towns and CMS led to N.C. House passage of legislation granting specific towns the ability to create and manage charter schools. And officials in Huntersville and Cornelius, citing the lack of CMS plans for new facilities in the northern end of the country despite approval of a $922 million school bond referendum in 2017, opted to join the towns included in the bill, which was passed by the N.C. Senate in June.
In August, controversy surrounding the issue increased when the CMS board adopted a policy prioritizing new school construction in towns not involved in the charter school bill unless town’s included in the legislation agreed not to pursue charters for 15 years.
In response, while elected officials in both north Mecklenburg towns continued to stress they considered inclusion in the legislation as basically a way to keep options open for town involvement in educational services, both towns also created committees to evaluate pros, cons and possibilities of municipal charters. Those committees have held multiple meetings and have set an early spring target for submitting their recommendations to commissioners.
The CMS policy adopted in August also created the Municipal Education Advisory Committee, consisting of representatives from all seven municipalities in Mecklenburg County and three members of the CMS board. The goal for that group is improved communication between all parties and focused discussions about the future of education throughout the county.
Schools expand: In May, Lake Norman Charter School began construction of a 71,000-square-foot elementary school at 10019 Hambright Road. The 21-year-old charter school has high school and middle school campuses on N.C. 115 and began elementary classes in mobile units on the new campus in the 2017-18 school year. The 25-classroom new building, including a new gymnasium, is scheduled to welcome students in August.
Also in 2018, Community School of Davidson began clearing work on the 42-acre site in Huntersville destined to be the charter school’s athletic complex and outdoor classroom facility. The property, at the corner of Beatties Ford Road and Bud Henderson Road, will feature a multi-sport stadium, baseball/softball field and eight tennis courts.
And in August, Davidson Day announced plans for a second campus. The 11-year-old private school, on Jetton Street in Davidson, acquired 17 acres off N.C. 115 at the southern edge of Mooresville as the future home of its upper school.
Blue wave’ sweep: In November, Democrats Natasha Marcus, Christy Clark and Elaine Powell won elections to replace Republican incumbents as north Mecklenburg representatives.
Marcus defeated Jeff Tarte to claim the N.C. Senate District 41 seat, Clark unseated John Bradford in the N.C. House District 98 race, and Powell beat Jim Puckett to become the District 1 representative on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.