AdWatch: Democrats make much of NC toll project

AP News
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Posted: Oct 25, 2014 4:30 AM

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — TITLES: "Map." ''Toll."

LENGTH: 30 seconds each.

AIRING: The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee says it is running the pair of similar ads in the Charlotte, North Carolina, market in the last stage of the Senate campaign between Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. It's part of a multimillion-dollar ad buy designed to help Hagan, running until Election Day, the group said.

KEY IMAGES: In "Map," viewers see Tillis' name and face on a highway sign next to another sign for Interstate 77 saying "TOLL AHEAD." The ads suggest Tillis used his pull as state House speaker to get "a toll-lane" bill through the North Carolina General Assembly and signed into law. The ads say property owners who could stand to gain financially from the project donated $26,000 to his Senate campaign the day after the bill was signed into law. "Toll" relies heavily on video from a Charlotte TV report, showing apparent protesters of the toll lanes with an anti-Tillis sign.

"Tolls for us. Millions for his friends," a narrator says. "North Carolina can't trust Thom Tillis," one of the ads concludes.

ANALYSIS: The ads paint a blurry picture of what transpired, ignoring that the I-77 project had already been approved by state transportation officials well before the bill cited in the commercials passed and that Democrats also supported the bill. The ads offer no evidence that Tillis' position was connected with the money donated to his campaign.

The bill involved tolls, but they were a small part of a statewide overhaul of how road-building money is distributed and how projects are evaluated to receive that money. The effort was spearheaded by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, had bipartisan support and was approved 105-7 in the House.

Tillis didn't vote, as is routine for a speaker when presiding over debate. The law didn't change the plan to create restricted express lanes on I-77 in and near Tillis' House district for carpoolers or motorists willing to pay extra. A private company will design and build the project by 2018 and operate it. The measure however, does offer regions additional public money if they agree to tolls to pay for other projects. Tillis supported the toll lanes as a way to reduce congestion north of Charlotte. A few Republicans oppose his candidacy over the tolls.

McCrory signed the bill into law on June 26, 2013. On June 27, Tillis held his kickoff campaign fundraising event in his hometown of Cornelius. On that date, donations came from executives of ACN Inc. and some of their spouses. Some ACN donors are involved in an investment company that bought land along I-77, and the ads imply that such "friends" of Tillis will see the land value soar as a result of the highway project.

But there's no evidence that the juxtaposition of the bill's passage and Tillis' fundraising event was anything other than coincidental. The legislation took months to pass, facing several delays along the way, and the fundraiser was planned for weeks. Nor is it clear that the highway project alone will raise the value of the land enough to earn "millions for his friends."

The land's previous owners had wanted to turn the property into a development of offices, restaurants, condos and hotels. But officials say that wouldn't work without a new I-77 exit nearby.

And an exit isn't part of the express-lanes project. It won't be built later, either, unless it meets state transportation qualifications separately.