Law Center challenges earlier court’s ruling
The fight over the Monroe Bypass will go back to court in 2012. Arguing that the U.S. District Court judge didn’t look at all the facts, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a brief Dec. 19 in their appeal of the ruling.
“This is the ‘from scratch’ review, with a fresh set of eyes looking at the case,” SELC attorney Chandra Taylor said. “We hope to achieve a decision that takes into consideration the facts in the case.”
In Nov. 2010, the SELC 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 inconsistent data was used in assessing the impact on streams in the Yadkin River water basin.
The U.S. District Court rejected those claims, saying the Turnpike Authority followed procedure, with data to back up each step in the process. The SELC disagreed, filing an appeal Oct. 31.
“The history of this toll highway is one of the defendants’ consistent failure to take that hard look and to consider a reasonable range of alternatives,” the brief reads. “The defendants used the wrong data, yielding misleading analysis. They have compared ‘building the toll road’ to ‘building the toll road’ and have illogically concluded that building this expressway adjoining one of the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan areas will have virtually no impact on growth.”
Originally projected at 21.1 miles, stretching from Matthews in Mecklenburg County to Interstate 85 on the Anson County border, the project will now stretch 19.7 miles, starting at the edge of Stallings and linking with Interstate 85 near Marshville. 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, thanks to a widening and repaving project done in 2009, which could divert some traffic expected on the bypass. 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.
In its brief, the SELC argued that a 2007 Department of Transportation study proved that the Bypass wasn’t needed.
This study, performed by NCDOT’s own consultant, Stantec, concluded that just $13.3 million in short and long term improvements, such as conversion to a superstreet, closed loop traffic signal systems and added turn lanes, would be enough to address traffic concerns, SELC attorneys wrote in the brief.
A superstreet does not allow left turns from side streets. The problem with the SELC’s claims is that they’re based on data from four years ago. Since then, new schools and developments have been built throughout the county.
Using a wink as evidence
Also of concern to SELC officials is an email sent by Turnpike Authority official Jennifer Harris September 28, 2010. An attorney for the SELC had sent Harris an email, asking if all traffic forecasts for the area included the Monroe Bypass in their data. Harris forwarded the email on to another Turnpike Authority official, while adding an internet symbol as her own commentary.
“This symbol is a commonly-used internet shorthand indicating a ‘wink’,” SELC officials wrote in the brief. “This email further confirms that the Turnpike Authority was aware of the false (data) and it strongly suggests that the Turnpike Authority intended to mislead the public.”
The District Court made a mistake, SELC officials wrote, by refusing to include the email with the ‘wink’ in the court record.
“The SELC has raised no new arguments and we are very confident that we will prevail again,” Turnpike Authority Communications Director Reid Simons said. Simons added that Turnpike Authority officials were preparing their response brief, which they hope to have filed with the court by Jan. 19.
“We are proceeding full speed ahead,” Simons said, of the bypass construction. “We are meeting regularly with the design build teams and right of way contractors on an aggressive schedule.”
In their appeal, SELC officials asked that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals hear the case during its March 20 to 23 session.