540 toll road project expected to survive legislative reversals

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMay 22, 2013 

— State legislators are erasing a 2011 law that blocked progress on a toll-road project to extend the 540 Outer Loop across southern Wake County – and they are killing a different part of the law that instructs the state Department of Transportation to actually build the road.

The contradictory changes are in the budget approved Wednesday by the Senate, and in a major transportation funding law approved by the House earlier this month. They reflect conflicting priorities that have turned the state’s turnpike program upside down since Republicans took charge of the legislature and the executive branch.

The outcome now expected by DOT engineers, legislators and Wake County leaders might seem contradictory, too.

The 2011 law had stopped DOT from considering the unpopular Red Route, which would take the six-lane expressway through the town of Garner, destroying homes, parks and churches.

DOT is expected to study the Red Route – and to reject it. State and local leaders prefer the Orange Route, which would take 540 through sensitive Swift Creek wetlands south of Garner.

And DOT is expected to build the toll road – even though it will no longer be mandated by state law – once the Orange Route passes review by regulatory agencies and environmental lawyers.

The 540 project is called the Triangle Expressway Southeast Extension. It will take the TriEx toll road from Holly Springs in southwest Wake to Interstate 40 near Garner.

The Senate budget and the Strategic Mobility Formula proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory remove the TriEx Southeast Extension from a law that tells DOT what toll roads to build. Instead, its fate is to be decided by an objective assessment of the project’s costs and benefits.

“We’ve been working for the past two years to de-politicize the process, and put DOT in charge of working to choose roads based on data-driven information,” Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Gaston County Republican, said Wednesday at a Senate Transportation Committee meeting.

The new legislation still appears to favor certain toll projects, even though they are no longer named.

It says the state can build two toll roads that were ranked in the top 35 when DOT compared a variety of road, rail and transit projects for state funding in 2012. That list includes planned toll lanes on Interstate 77 near Charlotte, and five other projects to add interstate toll lanes in Mecklenburg and Wake counties.

It says DOT can build toll projects in partnership with private investors. That describes a proposed toll bridge over Currituck Sound.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake County Republican whose district includes Garner, attempted Wednesday to reverse the legislature’s direction on the TriEx Southeast Extension.

He proposed to restore the TriEx Southeast Extension to the list of toll roads authorized by law, and to protect the 2011 measure that banned study of the Red Route. Barefoot’s effort, offered as an amendment to the Senate budget, died in a 39-11 vote on the Senate floor.

The 540 project would link to the Triangle Expressway in western Wake, completing a major new I-40 bypass around Raleigh. DOT officials say the TriEx Southeast Extension should prevail when it competes with other projects.

“Yes, absolutely,” Jim Trogdon, DOT’s chief operating officer, said Wednesday. “We’ve just got to get through the environmental documents process. It’s a pretty competitive project. The traffic volumes, the travel-time savings, it should compete well in all those categories.”

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

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