Feared route all but dead

But bypass lives, engineer says

Staff WriterMarch 17, 2011 

With the General Assembly backing Garner's campaign to kill the Red Route option for a toll road that would cut the town in half, state transportation officials say they'll find another way - somehow - to extend the Triangle Expressway across southern Wake County.

"We'll figure this out," Steve DeWitt, the N.C. Turnpike Authority's chief engineer, said Wednesday. "We're a pretty creative bunch."

State officials had said for weeks that they had no intention of building the Red Route, which would bulldoze homes and threaten development of a business park in Garner. But they argued that environmental regulators required them to continue studying the Red Route for the sake of comparing it to the so-called Orange Route, which crosses sensitive wetlands south of Garner.

The state House is expected today to approve and send to Gov. Bev Perdue legislation barring the state from building or even studying the Red Route. The measure, sought by Garner officials, passed the Senate on a 50-0 vote last week and cleared a House committee without dissent Tuesday.

DeWitt warned in a memo to state Department of Transportation officials Monday that killing the Red Route would prompt federal environmental regulators to kill the Triangle Expressway Southeast Extension from N.C. 55 at Holly Springs to Interstate 40 near Garner.

But he acknowledged the next day that further resistance is futile.

"We do not oppose the bill," DeWitt told the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday.

DeWitt conceded that Garner has won its fight and that Perdue's signature will eliminate the Red Route option. He said the Turnpike Authority is determined to find another way to build the road, which would complete an I-40 bypass around the south and west sides of Raleigh.

"We'll bring in outside help and involve the community leadership maybe in a more pointed way than we have in the past," DeWitt said. "We'll see if there are some ideas we have missed."

Environmental agencies had asked for more information on the human and economic costs of building the road through Garner, so they could weigh it against the environmental impact of building on the Orange Route, which would damage streams that provide habitat for an endangered mussel.

It isn't clear whether the legislation will prevent the Turnpike Authority from eventually winning approval to build on the Orange Route, which state officials still prefer.

"The truth would be, you never know for sure," Jim Trogdon, chief operating officer of the state Department of Transportation, told local elected officials who serve on a Wake area planning board Wednesday afternoon. Like DeWitt, Trogdon previously had warned that the legislation would kill the turnpike project.

Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment.

Still fighting against it

Garner officials had said the town was about to lose a major new employer - a health care company that had planned to build on 10 acres in Greenfield Business Park.Tony Beasley, the town's economic director, said the company will go somewhere else if the Red Route is not formally abandoned by March 28. Beasley said the health care company would employ 225 workers with an average salary of $50,000 a year.

Though Trogdon and DeWitt conceded defeat Wednesday, Garner residents were not ready to acknowledge victory.

A series of speakers stood at a meeting of CAMPO, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, to denounce the Turnpike Authority and accuse it of plotting to divide the town. Mayor Ronnie Williams invoked an Old Testament story.

"Garner is David, and our enemy is the Turnpike Authority," Williams said. "They are Goliath, Goliath who placed the Red Route on the map. It would benefit Goliath but do untold damage to the town of Garner."

Williams pulled out a couple of rocks and tossed one of them, gently, to Wake County Commissioner Joe Bryan.

On the other side of the room, DeWitt flinched.

Staff writer Paul A. Specht contributed to this report.

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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