Wake legislators split on bill to let NCDOT study Red Route through Garner

New bill aims to jump through hoop set by federal regulators

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJanuary 31, 2013 

— Two state House members from Wake County have introduced a bill that would allow the state to study the Red Route option for the 540 Outer Loop expressway – which would bulldoze parks and neighborhoods in Garner.

The bill aims to undo a law that has stopped progress on extending the six-lane 540 Outer Loop across southern Wake, between Holly Springs and Interstate 40 near the Johnston County line.

Garner’s new senator said he would oppose the bill, which was filed Wednesday by Reps. Paul Stam of Apex and Nelson Dollar of Cary, both Republicans.

“I can’t support a bill that will approve study of a route that we don’t intend to fund – and will go straight through the middle of one of the towns that I represent,” said Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican elected in November, whose district includes Garner.

Wake County leaders and state Department of Transportation officials favor the Orange Route, south of Garner, as the path for extending the six-lane 540 Outer Loop expressway across southern Wake. A 2011 law forbids DOT to build or even study the Red Route.

But the Orange Route would trample sensitive wetlands that are home to an endangered fresh-water mollusk, the dwarf wedge mussel.

The Federal Highway Administration cut off funding for Outer Loop work in December. Federal environmental regulators told DOT they would not consider the Orange Route unless road planners compared it with an alternate route that would cause less environmental harm – the Red Route.

Over protest from Garner’s mayor and the chairman of the Wake County commissioners, a regional planning board of local elected officials called for repeal of the 2011 law. Even though DOT and elected leaders vow they will never allow the Outer Loop to be constructed on the Red Route, most officials agreed to allow engineers to study it.

In an interview earlier this month, Stam said the reversal was necessary.

“Somebody’s going to have to file a bill to repeal that thing,” he said. “Nobody wants to build the Red Route. But if the feds are going to be obstinate about it, then sometimes you’ve got to play their silly game and study it. Hopefully for not too long.”

Stam’s measure also would press DOT to move quickly with the Red Route study, and would have the House-Senate Joint Transportation Oversight Committee monitor progress on the project.

Garner town officials still oppose the Red Route and the legislation to repeal the protection they won two years ago. Town leaders said that uncertainty surrounding the Red Route had stalled economic development plans. After the repeal law was enacted, two new employers announced big projects there.

“I remain in my opposition to the Red Route and the repeal of the bill,” Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said Wednesday. “I guess I’ll have to accept the fact that it’s going to be studied. The study needs to be done so we can move forward with another option.”

The 2011 law was championed by former Sen. Richard Stevens, a Republican, who preceded Barefoot as Garner’s senator.

The proposed section of the 540 Outer Loop would be built as a toll road, extending the Triangle Expressway east across southern Wake County. It would complete a new bypass around Raleigh, as an alternate route for truckers and other drivers who now pass through the city on a congested section of I-40.

“Everyone wants to see 540 built,” Barefoot said. “The question I have is: Why are we going to study a route that everyone says we will not build?”

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

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