GARNER — State transportation officials say they'd rather kill a planned turnpike than build it on the so-called Red Route through the middle of Garner - but they will continue evaluating the unpopular path to compare it to the Orange Route, a widely preferred option that would pass south of town.
"We have no intention of building the red route as drawn," Jim Trogdon, chief operating officer of the state Department of Transportation, told Garner officials in a letter this week. And if federal regulators decide it is the only route they will allow, Trogdon wrote, DOT will not build the turnpike.
But Trogdon stopped short of making that an ironclad promise, and his letter did not calm Garner's opposition to the Red Route.
"It wasn't worth the paper it was written on," Mayor Ronnie Williams said Friday. "I don't think anybody can promise anything right now."
The Orange Route for the proposed Triangle Expressway extension through southern Wake County would pass through sensitive wetlands that are home to an endangered mussel. Federal regulators said last month they might kill the turnpike unless the state provides a detailed comparison with an alternative route that would cause less wetland damage.
The Red Route avoids the mussel habitat, but it would bulldoze homes, businesses, parks and churches in Garner. Officials with the N.C. Turnpike Authority, part of the DOT, sided with Garner residents and asked regulators for permission to drop the Red Route from further consideration.
But the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates road construction in wetland areas, told DOT in January that it needed a more focused analysis.
The evidence gathered so far looks at the impacts in red and orange corridors marked 1,000 feet wide on DOT maps.
DOT engineers must draw routes about 350 feet wide, to reflect the actual size of turnpikes that could be built within the orange and red zones. Then they'll measure human and natural impacts along these paths.
The additional study will keep the Red Route in play at least through the end of 2011, said Steve DeWitt, the turnpike authority's chief engineer. A draft environmental impact statement would be expected by June 2012.
Garner officials say the lingering uncertainty threatens to scare off an unidentified employer who is considering a $9 million investment in the Greenfield South business park, with the prospect of 225 new jobs. The business park lies in the Red Route path.
"Given the schedule they're on, they've got to do something quickly," Williams said.
Scott McClendon, assistant regulatory chief in the Corps of Engineers' Wilmington District, said regulators haven't drawn any conclusions about where the road should be built.
"Road projects by their very nature, especially new-location freeways, entail potentially a lot of impacts to people - to churches and cemeteries, the human impact - as well as to the natural environment - streams and waterways and endangered species," McClendon said in an interview. "For us to drop those alternatives at this point in the game and leave us with essentially one alternative, we would not be doing our due diligence."
Environmental agencies ultimately could approve the Orange Route, provided DOT takes sufficient steps to minimize the environmental damage. That's what happened a few years ago with the nearby U.S. 70 Clayton Bypass project, which affected a mussel habitat in the same watershed.
DeWitt said DOT has never before said it will study a road alternative even though it has no intention of building it. The state could run afoul of the federal environmental law if it offered a binding pledge not to build the Red Route, he said. But he said environmental agencies need the comparison before they can accept the Orange Route.
"We're going to study both these routes equally," DeWitt said. And if regulators approve only the Red Route for construction, he said, "We'll choose the 'no build' option, because the human impacts are so sizable there."
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