Planners try restarting TriEx project in southern Wake

Road planners try new approach to winning approval from environmental regulators. They still like the Orange Route

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comAugust 21, 2012 

  • What’s next for 540 State and local road planners have a timeline for winning the approval of regulators and local residents for a route to extend the Triangle Expressway and the 540 Outer Loop across southern Wake County, from Holly Springs to Interstate 40 near Garner. October-November: Evaluations of possible route corridors, including some that were eliminated previously. These would weigh project costs and environmental and community impacts. December: Public meetings to discuss the route evaluations, with some routes to be eliminated. April 2013: New report eliminates more options, advances study of two or three. November 2013: Draft environmental impact statement, possibly making the case for one recommended route. Public hearings follow. 2014: Final environmental impact statement and approval of 540 route by state and federal regulators. Then the state Department of Transportation moves ahead with design, engineering, financing, land acquisition and construction – all not yet scheduled. No timetable is available for the final phase of Triangle Expressway in eastern Wake County, from Garner to Knightdale. Planners have informally recommended a Green Route shown on some maps, but other options have been mentioned as well. Source: N.C. DOT

The newest multicolor map of possible routes for the 540 Outer Loop is an upside-down rainbow spread across southern Wake County. But everybody knows that Orange is still the favorite color.

State and local road planners will unroll the many-hued map at a meeting Wednesday morning with federal and state regulators. They hope the regulators eventually OK their new strategy to restart a stalled project to build the next leg of 540 as an extension of the Triangle Expressway toll road from Holly Springs to Interstate 40 near Garner.

Their ultimate goal is to win approval by 2014 for a route that makes a good road without causing undue harm to homes and businesses or to sensitive wetlands – and without raising hackles in the town of Garner.

But in their second attempt to navigate tortuous federal environmental regulations, they figure they’ll have to take a few steps backward before they can move forward.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies have rebuffed a proposal by the state Department of Transportation to forge ahead with an option known as the Orange Route. It has been the favored corridor for 540 since the 1990s, when DOT took legal steps to protect it from development.

DOT rejected other routes over the past couple of years because they would destroy too many homes, and for other reasons. One option, the Red Route, was outlawed by the state legislature in 2011 because it would bulldoze churches, parks, subdivisions and an industrial park in Garner.

But the Orange Route would trample sensitive wetlands that are home to an endangered stream mussel. The regulators said they could not approve it unless DOT gave them a good alternative for comparison. They threatened to cut off federal funding.

Now DOT and local planners have added two new colors to the map of alternatives. Early evidence shows that the new Lilac and Plum routes would hurt more homes and neighborhoods than the Orange Route, but they would cause less wetlands damage.

At the same time, road planners are proposing to change the way they define the turnpike project, in order to give more consideration to local economic development plans in Garner and other towns. The new criteria are permitted under environmental laws, and they should make it easier to justify ruling out the Red Route and other options.

But it means again evaluating discounted options, including the unpopular Blue and Purple options DOT introduced in September 2010 and eliminated a few weeks later – because they would destroy shopping centers and subdivisions in Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina.

“The thought is that the Red Route fails miserably at being considered with any sort of plan Garner has been trying to follow for the last 20 or 30 years,” said Ed Johnson, executive director of CAMPO, a Wake-area transportation planning agency. “And very likely the Blue and Purple routes will fail, as well.”

The new strategy was developed under the guidance of Washington consultants who previously worked as federal regulators themselves. Southern Wake mayors met recently to give grudging approval. Tim Maloney, the Wake County planning director, briefed the county commissioners at their meeting Monday.

“If things would fall into place as we would expect and hope, the analysis of alternatives would clearly show that the original Orange Route and at least one of the other alternatives, possibly the Plum and the Lilac, would move forward with further detailed study,” Maloney said.

He outlined a timetable of reports and reviews required by environmental laws, leading to final approval of a TriEx route in 2014.

Several commissioners lamented the years of uncertainty and delay, and they voted to reaffirm their preference for the Orange Route. Commissioner Joe Bryan of Knightdale said it wasn’t right for southern Wake residents to be thwarted by unelected regulators.

“We’ve got an Orange corridor that we have protected,” Bryan said. “And now we’re going to draw some new lines on a map and impact more people that have been sitting there for almost 20 years, because an agency says we’ve got to look at something else.”

Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith contributed.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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