Tillis's 'Big Boy Pants' and the Creeping Tyranny of Toll Roads

A glimpse into ego and lunacy in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate
Mariordo via Wikimedia Commons
Fascism at work on I-95 in D.C.'s Virginia suburbs.

This has been making the rounds in the left-wing blogosphere over the last 24 hours: a recording from a meeting last year between N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis and a group of conservative activists and legislators accusing him of blocking legislation they favor to improve his chances in this year’s U.S. Senate race. Mother Jones posted it yesterday afternoon.

The meeting was called to try to resolve friction between Tillis and N.C. Rep. Larry Pittman of Concord, a minister and Tea Party favorite who’d criticized Tillis in public in April. It’s unclear who else is in the room. There’s a tense exchange at the 10-minute mark in which an unnamed legislator tells Tillis, “I think it’s time now for us to put this behind us, put our big boy pants on …”

To which Tillis responds, “I understand that, but I have big boy pants on every day, with all due respect.”

“Big-boy pants.” Silly men! Who talks like that?, etc. That’s the hook/keyword for the folks spreading it around the web.

But if you keep listening, you learn something else about the dynamics of the U.S. Senate race, one of the most critical in the nation this year—and what’s fueling the Tea Party animus toward Tillis that appears to be driving the GOP primary into runoff territory.

Ready for this? It’s Tillis’s support for high-occupancy toll roads in Interstate 77 in the Lake Norman area and their relation to the U.N.-backed conspiracy to destroy America.

The HOT zone

I wish I were joking. I don’t spend a lot of time ferreting around the nuttier corners of the web, mainly because I consider myself a rational and sane person who does not wish to detach a portion of my skull and whip it down the street like a Frisbee. But yeah, this is a real thing.

In the recording, a woman speaks up at 13:05. She’s a conservative activist from Iredell County, it appears, and she speaks about “bullying” and “intimidation” from people telling her to stop spreading false information about the I-77 toll roads. “That’s the only reason I’m here,” she says.

“If I honestly believed there was a better alternative, I would go for it. If I wanted to do the populist, expedient thing, I would go for it,” Tills responds. “Because most people really don’t know what’s going on with it, and there’s a group that has a lot of passion around it. But in my heart of hearts, I believe it’s the best policy you could possibly have up there.”

What’s this all about? If you don’t live in the Lake Norman area, Tillis’s home base, you might not understand what’s going on here. It’s about the N.C. Department of Transportation’s plan to help relieve congestion on the growing-like-crazy I-77 corridor by adding HOT (high-occupancy/toll) lanes from the Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte north to exit 36 in Iredell County—26 miles.

It’s a $550 million project. N.C. DOT will contribute $170 million, and a private contractor to be determined will pay for the rest. The regional transportation authority’s basic thinking: It would take roughly 15 years to collect enough money through the state’s gasoline tax for highway improvement to widen I-77, by which time additional growth will have overwhelmed the interstate and made the traffic nightmare up there even worse. This way, private industry foots most of the bill and widens the interstate far sooner—by 2018.

Will it work? It ought to help, at least. Nobody likes toll roads in principle, but here it’s a matter of choosing which caliber of bullet you’d rather bite. You want a daily four-hour traffic jam on I-77 in 10 years and come-lately, ineffectual improvements paid in full by taxpayers? Or some people paying extra in exchange for a quicker project funded mainly by the private sector?

Couple of key things to remember, too: The whole idea is to encourage—not mandate, encourage—people to car-pool and take public transit to reduce congestion. Vehicles with three or more occupants, plus buses and motorcycles, can use the HOT lanes for free. Others can choose to pay a toll that varies depending on traffic volume or use the existing general-purpose lanes. Drivers wouldn’t have to pay extra if they chose not to. They’d just have to take their chances in the other lanes.

Multimodal fascism

And, this, apparently, is tantamount to fascism.

The guy who recorded Tillis and the other people in that closed-door meeting is a Charlotte Tea Party activist named Chuck Suter. He runs a website called ConstitutionalWar.org. He strongly supports Greg Brannon, the Tea Party’s guy in the Senate GOP primary.

One of Chuck’s major issues—as it is for the far-right conspiracy theory crowd—is Agenda 21, which has become a kind of shibboleth for the Tea Party (from a 2012 New York Times story):

Across the country, activists with ties to the Tea Party are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.

They are showing up at planning meetings to denounce bike lanes on public streets and smart meters on home appliances—efforts they equate to a big-government blueprint against individual rights.

“Down the road, this data will be used against you,” warned one speaker at a recent Roanoke County, Va., Board of Supervisors meeting who turned out with dozens of people opposed to the county’s paying $1,200 in dues to a nonprofit that consults on sustainability issues.

Local officials say they would dismiss such notions except that the growing and often heated protests are having an effect …

The protests date to 1992 when the United Nations passed a sweeping, but nonbinding, 100-plus-page resolution called Agenda 21 that was designed to encourage nations to use fewer resources and conserve open land by steering development to already dense areas. They have gained momentum in the past two years because of the emergence of the Tea Party movement, harnessing its suspicion about government power and belief that man-made global warming is a hoax.

Guess where toll lanes fit in?

I’m not going to bother linking to all the nutbaggery Suter and countless others have engaged in over this. Just Google “Thom Tillis” and “toll roads” and discover that, of all the things Tillis has and done in his time in the General Assembly—overseeing a genuine overhaul of this state in a corporate conservative direction, on multiple fronts—this is what’s getting his right-wing opponents fired up: his support of toll lanes on I-77, because Agenda 21, and communism, and precious bodily fluids.

Back in November, when both Mark Harris and Greg Brannon publicly signed onto the notion of toll roads as “fascist,” I was mystified. What? Now it makes—well, surely not sense, but I now understand the root of the madness.

It’s crazy. But it’s a real issue in a Republican Party primary for a seat in the United States Senate. I’m not saying I feel sorry for Tillis; I don’t. But the man—big boy pants and all— at least occupies the same dimension of reality that I do. As such, I guess I feel a certain kinship with him, as I do with other denizens of the reality-based community.

Update, 4/16: Yesterday evening, I got an email from Kurt Naas, a Concord business owner and founder of wideni77.org, a citizens’ group that supports adding general purpose lanes instead of toll lanes to the interstate in the Lake Norman area. He wrote, in part:

The I-77 toll project is expected to cost $655 million, the bulk of which will be tax-payer backed bonds. According to a Parsons Brinckerhoff study, a general purpose lane solution would cost ~$100 million. The difference is because the toll project requires several bridges to be demolished and rebuilt so four private toll lanes can fit under them. A GP solution of one lane in either direction does not require this.

HB-817, passed last summer under Tillis’ leadership, re-allocated how N.C. prioritizes road funding. Under this law, an I-77 GP project would have ranked “extremely favorably” according to the NCDOT Division 10 engineer, meaning it would not take 20-30 years as Tillis has been saying, and indeed he has not said for several months now.

We have simply asked our representative—Tillis—to evaluate such an alternative before signing a 50-year tolling contract. He has refused.

Without getting into the pros and cons of general purpose vs. HOT lanes—either in general or for this particular stretch of interstate—I thought it was fair to clarify a couple of things.

What I wrote above wasn’t intended as an endorsement of toll lanes. It also wasn’t intended to broad-brush all toll lane opponents as paranoid fantasists watching the skies for black helicopters. It was just meant to highlight a particular strain of conspiracy theory—the Agenda 21 stuff—that’s clearly crept into the Senate race, as demonstrated by both Brannon and Harris.

Still, it’s understandable for Naas to worry about readers lumping his group with the Chuck Suters of the world, and reasonable for him to ask me to make the distinction clear.

So, to be explicit: When I refer above to the “madness,” I’m not talking about Kurt Naas and the wideni77.org group. They make no mention of Agenda 21 or condemn toll lanes in principle. Naas just doesn’t think they’re a good idea for I-77 around Lake Norman.

I don’t know if he’s right, or if anyone is. But it’s a reasonable objection, made reasonably. I should have been more careful and thorough, and I appreciate Naas objecting to what I wrote without breaking out a flamethrower.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest