Road Worrier

New TriEx proposals may save Garner from Red Route

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMay 22, 2012 

If you worry that state road planners have run out of new ideas for building the Triangle Expressway across southern Wake County from Holly Springs to Garner, you might be encouraged to learn that, at least, they have come up with new colors.

Welcome, Plum Route and Lilac Route. We can thank – actually, some of us are paying them a lot of money – a couple of consultants for these additions to the planning palette.

Over the past few years a Crayola box full of color-coded routes had been winnowed to two problematic options: Red and Orange.

The Orange Route, drawn on the map two decades ago, unfortunately would trample sensitive wetlands and endangered mollusks. The newer Red Route unfortunately would treat Garner as rudely as a roughshod alien army treats Manhattan in – I’m not spoiling this, am I? – the movie, “The Avengers.”

Garner residents were so alarmed by the Red Route that they persuaded legislators to erase it from the map. A law passed last year told the state Department of Transportation exactly where it was forbidden even to study the possibility of building the new road.

The TriEx extension “shall not be located north of” the Orange Route, the law said, ruling out the Red Route. DOT officials said they were happy with that. They never in a million years hoped to bulldoze neighborhoods, churches and an industrial park to build a six-lane expressway through Garner, anyway.

But the Army Corps of Engineers and other regulatory agencies were not happy. Their jobs include protecting wetlands and dwarf wedge mussels from highway projects, or at least minimizing the damage. They said they would be unlikely to approve the Orange Route until DOT gave them something to compare it to.

DOT failed in January to satisfy federal agencies with a new comparison report. In March, the Federal Highway Administration gave DOT 60 days to come up with better information. Otherwise, it risked losing federal approval and funds to extend TriEx – a key leg of the 540 Outer Loop, which would open an Interstate 40 bypass around Raleigh.

Enter consultants. Garner and the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business booster group, put up $70,000 to hire Washington-based Dawson & Associates to help DOT navigate the rocky straits between state legislators and federal regulators.

Two Dawson guys came up with the Plum and Lilac color scheme. They redecorated the TriEx map with new alternatives that are said to hurt wetlands only 70 percent as much as the Orange Route. The Plum and Lilac routes are said to be well south of the dreaded Red.

Under wraps

The map itself is still hush-hush.

Recalling the general freakout spurred across Garner by the Red Route, the local folks working with Dawson are not ready to reveal which neighborhoods would be bulldozed by the Lilac and Plum routes.

“The issue is, anything that’s an alternative is going to be impactful on somebody,” said Ed Johnson, director of CAMPO, a Wake-area planning board, which agreed last week to chip in up to $150,000 to keep Dawson & Associates on the case. “This Lilac Route is meaningful, but it’s taking down houses.”

Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams hopes the new colors will work out.

“We want to see the expressway built,” Williams said. “But nobody wants to move forward if it’s going to affect Garner the way the Red Route would.”

DOT has asked federal highway officials for more time.

Terry Gibson, DOT chief engineer, said he has not yet met with the Dawson consultants who are doing most of the work on this. He said he is optimistic about prospects for satisfying the concerns of federal regulators.

“I think everybody wants to build the project,” Gibson said. “We just need to find a good way to the end.”

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