GARNER — North Carolina's toll-road builders are receiving Garner's message loud and clear, over and over:
Don't build that toll road here.
The town of 27,000 has pressed its campaign to kill the "Red Route" since September, when the N.C. Turnpike Authority released a new map of possible paths for the six-lane Triangle Expressway across southern Wake County.
More than 1,000 people repeated the message in a mid-December gathering with turnpike officials at Springfield Baptist Church, which is threatened by the Red Route. That was after weeks of meetings, lots of letters and resolutions, and 3,000 signatures collected for petitions protesting the damage that route would do to parks, businesses, and homes in 13 subdivisions.
"The direction you are going if you choose this route is the total destruction of Garner," Springfield Baptist member Dwight Rogers said. "Get it off the map now."
Turnpike officials say they're trying to do just that.
David W. Joyner, the turnpike authority's executive director since 2005, hopes by the end of this month to get approval from environmental regulators to drop the Red Route from consideration. Garner's sustained resistance is making a difference, he said.
"In the five or six years we've been here, nothing has created this kind of public response," Joyner said. "It's not just loud, it's virtually ubiquitous. Everybody's upset about it - and we are, too."
Construction began in 2009 on the first stretch of the Triangle Expressway, in western Wake County. A short section through Research Triangle Park will open in December as North Carolina's first modern toll road.
The planned southern leg will extend TriEx west from Holly Springs to Interstate 40 near Garner, completing a long-sought Raleigh bypass for I-40 drivers.
The presumed TriEx path marked on planning maps since the 1990s, known as the Orange Route, would pass south of Garner and hurt only a few homes.
Rare mollusk at risk
But it would cross streams that nurture an endangered species of mollusk, the dwarf wedge mussel. So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies told the Turnpike Authority to consider other routes.
"The whole process is about finding the least-damaging alternate for the human as well as the natural environment," Joyner said. "A lot of people think the human environment doesn't matter sometimes, when you look at some of these endangered species. But the overwhelming impact on the public has been very clear."
Springfield Baptist on Auburn-Knightdale Road, one of the largest churches in the Garner area, serves its 2,000 members with a big sanctuary that was built in 2002.
"Your beautiful church lies right on the edge of the Red corridor," Steve DeWitt, the turnpike authority's chief engineer, said at the December meeting. "We're trying hard to avoid impacts on this church."
There are plans for more construction on Springfield's 51-acre property, just east of town. A $7 million project in the works since 2007 would add a family life building and a center for the surrounding Auburn community.
Church leaders were ready to sign a contract with their chosen architect, but they stepped back when the Red Route was aired as a possible TriEx route.
"That would be $7 million spent for something you'd have to tear down or could be greatly impeded by a road that would come near us," said the Rev. Daniel Sanders, Springfield's pastor for 30 years, in an interview.
Waiting to be sure
"The way things are sounding now, there's a pretty good possibility this route will be eliminated. But we can't go on what's speculated. So the big project is temporarily on hold."
The Red Route would take TriEx north of Lake Benson and roll across the middle of Garner toward I-40. It isn't the only turnpike issue for residents of Garner and southwest Wake, and for nearby neighborhoods in Johnston County.
Another option on the multi-colored turnpike map would follow the Orange Route south of Lake Benson and then curve north into Garner on a short new alternate Pink Route, merging with the Red Route at an interchange with I-40.
And for the final section of TriEx through eastern Wake County, heading north from Garner to Knightdale, the turnpike authority is considering an old proposed route marked in green, and a new tan alternate.
Pink and tan out, too
Town officials and church and neighborhood groups also are lobbying against the pink and tan options.
If the Orange Route is chosen as the best path for TriEx, extra measures will be required, especially around bridges, to reduce stream pollution that would hurt the endangered mussels.
Garner folks aren't ready to relax. Sanders said he hopes to see "at least one more major show of opposition" to the Red Route in the next few weeks.
Last spring when Wake officials threatened to close the county library branch in Garner, widespread protest in town forced them to back down. The library stayed open.
Garner residents learned then that their voices can make a difference, and that lesson has helped sustain their fight against the Red Route, Mayor Ronnie Williams said.
"I think we have to maintain our opposition," Williams said. "We're a little bit encouraged, but we're not dropping our guard."
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