State gives final environmental permit, lawsuit still looms
Despite getting their final environmental approval from the state, it will be months before the North Carolina Turnpike Authority can start construction on the Monroe Bypass. Turnpike Authority officials were notified Tuesday, April 19 after the Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the permit. Road projects need the document, called a 404 permit, in order to proceed if they would possibly cross any water or wetlands.
A still pending lawsuit however means construction on the bypass can’t start until fall of this year at the earliest.
“It’s a shame that this project, which is the number one transportation priority for Mecklenburg and Union counties, is delayed because of a lawsuit without merit,” North Carolina Turnpike Authority Executive Director David Joyner said. “We are confident in the integrity of our studies and we look forward to our day in court.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against the Turnpike Authority last year, arguing the Bypass would do little to reduce the region’s air quality problems, as opposed to alternative solutions. Clean Air Carolina, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and the Yadkin Riverkeeper all signed on to the lawsuit, requesting a permanent shutdown of construction.
The National Environmental Policy Act, is the article cited by the Center, as they argue building the Bypass would endanger the environment. The 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. Additionally, SELC alleges that inconsistent data was used in assessing the impact on streams in the Yadkin River water basin.
“We’ve taken a look at the permit and it doesn’t alleviate the problem,” SELC attorney Chandra Taylor said. She acknowledged the Army Corps of Engineers did some of their own environmental work in researching potential problems, but work done now doesn’t change mistakes made in the past.
It was done wrong,” Taylor said. “That’s still a problem.”
A ruling on the lawsuit is expected by summer, with Turnpike officials estimating construction on the Bypass to start in October. The state won’t officially award the design contract for the road, projected to cost $750 million to $825 million, to the Boggs Paving group until the authority sells the final round of revenue bonds. The state is financing the bypass from three sources: $400 million in federal bonds, $185.7 million in state Transportation Improvement Program dollars and $25 million per year for eight years in gap funds, authorized in 2009 by the N.C. General Assembly.
Turnpike officials said they wouldn’t sell the revenue bonds until after a judge’s ruling. The Authority will also wait until that time to complete purchasing right of way.
“We are extremely optimistic about the ultimate outcome of the ruling, but we take our fiscal responsibility to the citizens of North Carolina very seriously and out of respect for the judicial process, we will wait,” Joyner said.
Originally projected at 21.1 miles, stretching from Matthews in Mecklenburg County to Interstate 85 on the Union County border, the project will now stretch 19.7 miles, starting at the edge of Stallings and linking with Interstate 85 near Marshville. Officials will have five years to complete the project, without having to apply for an extension. The Army Corps gave the project until Dec. 31 2016 to be finished, under their current application. Even with the delays, Turnpike officials said they expect the Bypass to be open sometime in early 2015.