The state Department of Transportation will spend the next two years studying 17 possible routes for completing the 540 Outer Loop across southern and eastern Wake County – and it will be a long two years for people in Garner and Holly Springs.
Terry Gibson, DOT’s chief engineer, said it’s too early to rule out any of the multicolor possibilities on the project route map. Now that these alternatives have been reviewed in planners’ offices, DOT is ready to send workers out into the field to count streams and species – along with homes and businesses – that would be affected by a six-lane toll road.
The studies are needed so DOT can pick a route that has the least impact on both the natural and the human environment, and then defend its choice against scrutiny from regulatory agencies and environmental lawyers.
“We understand that everybody who lives in this study area and adjacent to these corridors is impacted by the time it takes us to study these routes ...,” Gibson told reporters. “But we have do it in the right way. ... We need to be able to explain ourselves very clearly.”
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Garner folks are experienced worriers. They already have had a couple of years to fret about the prospect that DOT eventually could plow through parks, churches, businesses and residential neighborhoods to extend the Triangle Expressway east from Holly Springs to Interstate 40, and then north to Knightdale.
Garner’s so-called Red Route is under consideration because – unlike the Orange Route that passes south of Garner – it would not trample sensitive wetlands that nurture an endangered stream mussel.
But Holly Springs found itself on the hot seat only recently, when DOT said in October that it might consider a rainbow-connection of Purple, Blue and Lilac routes to take 540 across southern Wake. This path would run through a string of subdivisions including one of the town’s biggest neighborhoods, Sunset Oaks along Optimist Farm Road at the northeast side of town.
Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears said he had hoped DOT would drop the Purple-Blue-Lilac path from further consideration.
“It pretty much tears up Sunset Oaks and a bunch of other places on the way down,” Sears said in a telephone interview. “I’m very disappointed. I’m still hopeful that clear heads will prevail.”
The Purple-Blue-Lilac route runs well south of the Orange Route in southwestern Wake, then takes a northeasterly turn to cross north of the Orange Route. It has remained on DOT’s list because it would cause less wetlands harm than the Orange Route while, apparently, damaging fewer homes than the Red Route.
“We didn’t see any clear-cut route that needed to fall off the table” and be eliminated from further study, Gibson said. “If we dropped one we shouldn’t, we’d open ourselves up for scrutiny (later), and this process could take even longer.”
This project has a tortured history. In the 1990s, DOT drew a 1,000-foot-wide band across the map – now marked as the Orange Route – to protect it from development as the likely route for the Outer Loop. Regulators pressed for alternatives, but a furor in Garner moved the General Assembly in 2011 to bar the Red Route from further consideration.
Because the same regulators refused to consider the Orange Route without comparison to other options, the legislature rescinded its ban and DOT said it would study the Red Route along with other routes. Project information is online at http://ncdot.gov/projects/complete540/.
The 540 study will reach into eastern Wake County – dominated on the map by Green and Brown routes – but the controversy so far remains in southern Wake. Like Garner, parts of Holly Springs will be in limbo until DOT planners make their choice in 2015.
“Everything stops in that area,” Sears said. “All new building stops. All resale stops. All buying stops. Because people can’t afford to make a (real estate) decision in an area they know very well could come under the bulldozer. That’s a terrible thing for Realtors, a terrible thing for people that want to buy. It’s a bad plan.”