Judge rejects lawsuit, plaintiffs file appeal
A federal judge gave permission for work to continue on the Monroe Bypass, but the question is for how long. U.S. District Court Judge James Dever III issued his ruling Tuesday, Oct. 25, dismissing the lawsuit that had held up construction on the project.
“The judge ruled in our favor 100 percent, case closed,” North Carolina Turnpike Authority Director of Public Relations Reid Simons said. “We cannot wait to get started on this long awaited project.”
In Nov. 2010, The Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit, arguing that building the Bypass would endanger the environment. The Center alleged 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 alleged that inconsistent data was used in assessing the impact on streams in the Yadkin River water basin.
Judge Dever rejected those claims, saying the Turnpike Authority followed procedure, with data to back up each step in the process.
“The court concludes that defendants’ use of and reliance on (this) data was reasonable and did not violate defendants’ NEPA obligations,” Dever wrote.
That data was collected from the regional transportation authority, with local planners from each town and city assisting to forecast traffic volumes up until 2035.
Dever pointed to the fact that in June 2010, the Turnpike Authority asked Baker Engineering to investigate whether using the data to project growth in the area, with and without the Bypass, would give an accurate reading.
“Baker. Engineering examined the data and concluded that they accurately reflected the No-Build scenario and therefore could be used to project the traffic volumes and growth-inducing impact of that alternative,” Dever said. The lawsuit failed to point out any part where that data was flawed, other than to accuse the Turnpike Authority of using skewed numbers, Dever said.
“The plaintiffs’ argument concerning traffic forecast fails,” Dever wrote. “When the need for a proposed project is based on existing, as well as future, traffic congestion, and when the population of the project area will likely continue to grow even absent construction of the project, immaterial flaws in projecting future traffic volumes will not invalidate (the data).”
The only flaw Dever found was the fact the Turnpike Authority had misspoke in discussing the numbers with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“Defendants mistakenly stated that the data did not contemplate construction of the Monroe Connector Bypass,” Dever wrote. “Such statements contradicted what defendants already knew and defendants have since retracted them.”
Pursuing an appeal
Calling it a mistake didn’t sit well with Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Chandra Taylor.
“He characterized it as a mistake, (but) what the law requires is accurate information,” Taylor said. “For the agency to not provide accurate information, the project shouldn’t be allowed to continue.”
Dever also rejected the case law cited by the Center, stating in each of the incidents mentioned, the defendants failed to produce data backing up their claims. The Turnpike Authority did back up their claims with data, Dever said.
“We would disagree with the judge,” Taylor said. “This is still an ill conceived, environmentally harmful bypass. There’s still a problem.”
Original traffic counts estimated 36,400 people traveling the road in 2013, beginning in Matthews at the I-485 intersection and increasing to 40,000 by 2030. Those figures didn’t take into account the recently repaved N.C. 218, a 30-mile span starting near Mint Hill and stretching across Mecklenburg, Union and Anson counties.
It’s now easier for commercial and local traffic to use N.C. 218, which could divert some traffic expected on the bypass, since it also connects with Hwy 74 in Monroe. But turnpike authority officials say, since the bypass will be a toll road, they expected local drivers would find alternative routes. Freight traffic and vacationers bound for Wilmington will be among those expected to use the road.
We’re still definitely opposing this project,” Taylor said, adding that Center officials plan to file an appeal within the next few days.
The Turnpike Authority finance team met Oct. 25 immediately after the ruling to put together a schedule on when to sell the bonds. They plan to go before the Local Government Commission to present their plan for the bonds, then get the sale approved. At that point, the Turnpike Authority will execute the contract to the Design Build team, Simons said.
She estimates a project kickoff meeting will be scheduled within the next month, with the final design finished by April 2012.
“We will start the right of way process and begin moving dirt sometime next year,” Simons said.
The appeal won’t immediately have an impact on the project. Construction can go on as scheduled, until the judge grants an injunction.