CORNELIUS – It didn’t get up to speed before slamming into some controversy, but the regional body formed to analyze and assess options for altering current plans for the Interstate 77 Express Lanes project has completed its initiation.

The first meeting of I-77 Express Lanes Local Advisory Group – formed to “discuss issues and share ideas,” according to North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon – was held Jan. 24 at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce office off Catawba Avenue. The next meeting, according to North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) representatives, is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 14 at a location to be determined.

The host organization for the first session, and specifically Chamber President and CEO Bill Russell, recommended restricting access to the meeting in order to encourage what Russell described as “free and open dialogue among the participants.” And that decision, much more than the basic introductory nature of the meeting itself, stirred protest among those who believe the public stature of the group meant the meeting should be open to the public.

Russell, who said before and after the meeting that he thought limiting access to the meeting would encourage a more productive exchange – and said even though the gathering was held in the Chamber’s meeting room, he didn’t attend – admitted he was surprised by the negative reaction. 

“I thought it would be better for the members of the group,” he said. 

He added that, to his knowledge, none of the participants asked about opening the meeting to the public. And, to his knowledge, no one other than members of the media asked about access.

NCDOT representatives said before and after the meeting they were not involved in the decision to restrict access to the meeting. But prior to the start of the session, Trogdon addressed the media on the sidewalk outside the Chamber office.

Trogdon said the group – which includes individual representatives from towns, counties and chambers of commerce along the 26-mile corridor where the managed lanes are being built – was created because “we felt getting local representatives involved ... was the right approach.”

He said the group will be reviewing the options for altering the express lanes contract between I-77 Mobility Partners and the state that were identified in a 49-page review of the contract prepared last year by the Mercator Advisors consultant firm.

“We’ll be looking at the options,” he said. “The plan is that over the next four to six weeks we’ll do a deep analysis of the options, considering the advantages and disadvantages.”

He added that while the potential contract adjustments listed in the Mercator Report are the targeted subjects for analysis, “nothing is off the table” and that he expected there would also be “brainstorming to see if there are some ideas we haven’t identified.”

In response to questions about the reasons he was in town for the meeting, Trogdon said he and other NCDOT officials were taking part in the meeting “because this important, important for this region, and important for the state.”

Those accompanying Trogdon in Cornelius were Beau Memory, executive director of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority (NCTA); Carly Olexik, Nicole Meister, Rodger Rochelle, David Roy and Justin DeLancy, NCTA and NCDOT staff members; Jim Taylor, Mercator Advisors; and Adam Gosselin, Radha Krishna and Phil Schwab, representing the RS&H engineering and consulting firm involved in the project.

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