NCDOT still sorting out next steps
MONROE – With the future of the Monroe Bypass now unclear, officials with the Southern Environmental Law Center said now is a good time for county leaders to examine whether the project still makes sense.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled Thursday, May 3, that the N.C. Department of Transportation violated federal policy, “Because the agencies failed to disclose critical assumptions underlying their decision to build the road and instead provided the public with incorrect information, they did indeed violate NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act). … The agencies failed to take the required ‘hard look’ at environmental consequences.”
This week, David Farren with the SELC said he and his team will be watching the NCDOT and other agencies very closely as they work through this ruling.
“Under the National Environmental Protection Act, the law the court relied on striking down the bypass study, they need to take an open and honest look at both impacts and alternatives and it’s clear that didn’t happen,” Farren said. “So from our perspective, it’s not just a question of checking off boxes and jumping through hoops to get back to where they were. The law requires they take an open look at alternatives and impacts and anything that suggests it’s just a delay and already made up their minds to move forward is not consistent with the federal law.”
Farren’s team represented Clean Air Carolina, North Carolina Wildlife Federation and Yadkin Riverkeeper, as they accused the state and Federal Highway Administration of not doing its due diligence in conducting environmental impact studies for the bypass.
In addition to not doing the work required by law, the SELC said the transportation agencies falsely denied to the public and other permitting agencies that they had essentially compared “building the road” with “building the road.”
This is what many have referred to as the “build” or “no build” scenario.
It means that when weighing the impacts, the transportation agencies conducted the study as if the road — along with the traffic and development that would accompany the new 20-mile road with nine interchanges — was already there and that U.S. 74 couldn’t handle the load, even with some sort of fix for the congested highway.
“So by assuming the project alternative analysis, they doubled the project and tried to squeeze it on 74 and you can’t do that,” he said.
Farren said the reason these alternative analyses are important is because that’s what led federal and state agencies to permit the project, which agencies had a hard time with initially because of environmental concerns.
“If they do this study right, it’s not only an open question if they should move forward, but very much open if they can get permits for the project,” Farren said. “We will be very engaged.”
Reid Simons with the NCDOT said he had no information yet on the next steps for the department.
“We are investigating all of our options and what this opinion means for the environmental process, financial implications, and legal and judicial steps we need to take to address the court’s concerns and then move the project to construction,” Simons said. “The NCDOT/Turnpike Authority and local communities are committed to the project and are doing everything possible to address the court’s concerns in a timely manner. Our design/build team United Infrastructure, Boggs Paving, Anderson Construction and RK&K also are standing in support and will work with us on a solution to move this project forward.”
He added the department should know more details within two weeks.
While the DOT sorts things out on their end, Farren said now is the time for Union County to reassess its priorities.
“I think this is an opportunity for the county to look and see if this still makes sense,” Farren said. “This was conceived decades ago, during a different financial time, during a different department of transportation, economic climate nationally and a lot of things have changed even in the last few years, so putting environmental issues aside, the question is, does this project make sense?”
Farren said only 40 percent of the cost of the bypass will be covered by the toll, the rest will be paid for by taxpayers.
“All the water and sewer extensions, schools and traffic from the development of those nine interchanges, will put a tremendous burden on Union County in terms of providing those services and if you’re looking at residential bedroom communities, especially middle income, the cost of providing those services will likely far exceed tax revenue,” Farren said. “Taxes will go up and even with taxes significantly higher, this will be a losing proposition for the county. Demographics are changing.”
Farren said growth of residential communities, even ones like Union County which is one of the fastest growing counties in the country, is slowing and leveling off, and there’s doubt about whether it will ever come back.
“So it’s unfortunate the county has been led astray for all these years and this is a very important opportunity to decide whether this makes sense, investing in another corridor,” Farren said.
He said it would make more sense for the county to look at ways to create a road network that wouldn’t dump all of the traffic on U.S. 74, as well as looking at other ways to “invest transportation dollars to enhance the community.”
Stallings’ mayor, Lynda Paxton, agrees.
“This was a project more than 26 years in the making and the largest transportation project in North Carolina history and I’m disgusted at learning people’s dishonesty and deception has derailed something that much time and money has gone into,” Paxton said.
She said planners should look at things like light rail and adding lane capacity, and perhaps high-occupancy toll lanes to existing roads. She also said the town already has funding approved for the widening of Old Monroe Road in Indian Trail and Stallings which will help alleviate some of the congestion on U.S. 74.
“I think we could do a combination of some of those things, and spend less money and get something done quicker,” Paxton said. “Because even if we go back and do an environmental study, there will be lawsuits again and I don’t know that’s the best option, to create a new road that will cost millions of dollars to build.”