Allegations claim N.C. Turnpike Authority only used partial numbers
Did the North Carolina Turnpike Authority use actual data or only partial numbers when assessing what impact the Monroe Bypass would have?
In their request for an injunction, the Southern Environmental Law Center alleges only information collected from the western end of the road was submitted to the state, giving a skewed picture of the project’s potential impact.
“The underlying data was flawed. The impacts were understated,” environmental law center lawyer Chandra Taylor said, and the cost of the project is also a concern. “Fiscally, this project is an issue for our state. Everyone knows traffic is bad, but we know there were less costly ways to improve.”
The turnpike authority didn’t complete the process for environmental studies, only assessing the impacts of one fifth of the bypass route, Taylor said. Additionally, the center alleges the the authority used inconsistent data in assessing the impact on streams in the Yadkin River water basin.
“It’s about taking a hard look at the environmental analysis,” Taylor said. “We’d like a judge to look at our challenge.”
Taylor said, however, that local air quality studies, didn’t play into the lawsuit. During the summer months especially, the Charlotte region sometimes reaches 90 parts per billion of ozone, when federal guidelines set the maximum of 75 parts. In 2009, the federal officials informed the region it had until March 1, 2010 to produce a plan to meet those standards, or risk losing transportation funding.
The Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization submitted that plan, which details a list of projects designed to reduce air pollution by eliminating congestion through the year 2035. The Monroe Bypass was one of the projects listed in that plan, along with the expansion of Independence Boulevard in south Charlotte. The federal environmental agency gave the Charlotte region an extension until 2011 to move forward with long range transportation planning, when the area has to show improvement or risk sanctions.
“That is not part of our complaint, not what we get into,” Taylor said. “(Our request) is an assertion that by building the road, the (Turnpike Authority) would actually worsen traffic.”
The lawsuit argues the Bypass would cut through predominantly rural areas, opening them up to what she labeled as sprawl development of subdivisions and strip malls.
No water for development?
Other portions of environmental law center argument run into trouble however, due to the unique situation currently surrounding Union County.
Taylor finds it hard to believe the state’s claims that the Bypass would not spark massive growth in Union. However Union County is currently struggling to find water and sewer for already announced projects, with 150 companies on a waiting list. As the county builds infrastructure and signs contracts with Anson and Mecklenburg, it’s still expected to be at least five to 10 years before a significant amount of new capacity becomes available. Towns are already lining up to claim what capacity is available, to focus on their individual downtown projects. As the Bypass route would run to the northern end of the county, there’s also a question of infrastructure for growth, as Union County isn’t connected to some of those areas with water and sewer pipes.
“I am not privy to what planners expect to do with growth after 2014, but the case law is clear, roads do induce growth,” Taylor said. “If you build a road, there will be construction.”
But with 14 towns all vying for that capacity, what would be left for development along the bypass route?
Taylor said the group didn’t know details of Union County’s situation, but felt the issue still applied.
Instead of building the 19.7 mile road, she suggested simply using N.C. 218 to divert traffic away from the congestion of Hwy 74.
“Despite the planned expansion of transit along the U.S. 74 corridor in Mecklenburg County, neither Union County nor the City of Monroe even operates a public transportation system,” Taylor said. SELC argues that in order to reduce the traffic at a lower cost, Union County should develop a public transit system and increase the capacity freight trains can carry through its lines.
Taylor points to a 2007 NCDOT study which said improving the existing roads in the region would fix the majority of traffic issues. In the three years since that study was done however, NCDOT has made revised forecasts for several projects in the area, with each new projection resulting in higher levels of traffic. Earlier in November, increased traffic projections for Stallings Road and Indian Trail Road caused the state to reconsider allocating dollars to fund those widening projects.
There is also the question of the estimated price tag for the projects, which in 2007 came to $13.3 million. By 2010, the cost of all available materials increased significantly, raising the question of how much would exactly be saved by an expansion of Hwy 74 and N.C. 218. Both roads would need at least four lanes added, two on each side. Right of way would also need to be purchased.
“NCDOT has not really looked at alternatives,” Taylor said, arguing since an update of the cost has not been analyzed yet, how can the idea be rejected?
Even though the injunction request wasn’t filed until Nov. 2, don’t take that to mean SELC hasn’t been involved with the Bypass prior, Taylor said.
“In order to file, there has to be a record of decision and that wasn’t completed until September,” she said, when asked about the delay.
Taylor also pointed out that over the last two years, leading up to the final environmental impact document, the group was making comments.
Now for the environmental law center, the only ‘middle ground’ is a decision by the Turnpike Authority to go back to the drawing board and study upgrades for Hwy 74 or N.C. 218.
“To see this kind of money spent, we just want true consideration for the upgrades,” Taylor said.