Environmentalists were critical Wednesday – and Garner residents were relieved – when the state Department of Transportation picked the so-called Orange Route as its preferred path for the 540 Outer Loop across southern Wake County.
DOT also said its favored option for the last leg of 540 in eastern Wake is a combination of the Green and Mint routes on a color-coded map of alternatives.
The Orange Route from Holly Springs to Garner follows a path set aside since the 1990s, when DOT invoked its powers under the state Map Act to prevent new development that would make the land more expensive if the state wants to buy it in the future.
But the Orange Route is rated most likely of all the alternate paths to jeopardize an endangered stream mussel and trample acres of sensitive wetlands. A lawyer for conservation groups predicted Wednesday that DOT will have difficulty winning the necessary permits from state and federal environmental agencies.
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“Construction of this road would violate Section 401 of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act,” said Kym Hunter, a Chapel Hill-based attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “There is no new information we have seen to suggest that these problems have gone away.”
After federal regulators forced the department to study options that would cause less environmental harm than the Orange Route, the 540 alternatives map was expanded with multicolor variations that included the Red Route – which would bulldoze subdivisions, parks, churches and a business park in Garner.
State and local elected officials have roundly condemned the Red Route in recent years. Garner residents cheered DOT’s Orange Route choice.
“Hallelujah. That’s my comment,” Garner Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Behringer said. “That’s good news because that’s what the plan has been for 20 or 25 years. …I’m glad they stuck with the original route.”
A TriEx extension
DOT plans to build the remainder of 540 as a toll-road extension of the Triangle Expressway – the state’s first modern toll road – which now stretches for 18 miles from Research Triangle Park to Holly Springs in western Wake. DOT said it hopes to award a contract for the next leg of 540 – from N.C. 55 at Holly Springs to U.S. 401 – in 2018.
Eric Midkiff, DOT’s 540 project manager, said the 28.4-mile Orange-Green-Mint path was the best choice among alternatives that all had advantages and disadvantages.
An estimated 281 homes and businesses would have to be removed for the chosen route – but 12 of the 16 other routes would have forced more than 400 relocations apiece. DOT’s preferred path will affect 74.3 acres of wetlands – more than all but one of the alternatives.
“When there is not a clear favorite, then we try to best balance those impacts when making a decision,” Midkiff told reporters.
There still are more steps before the route is approved.
Regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are reviewing a draft environmental impact statement for the project DOT calls “Complete 540,” and they will consider DOT’s endorsement of the Orange Route.
Hunter of the Southern Environmental Law Center said DOT’s environmental study predicts only modest time savings for drivers who would pay tolls to use the new road. The study says a trip from RTP to Garner in 2035 will take 41 minutes on the new road – or 47 minutes on existing roads, if 540 is not built.
“Our overall concern is not so much Orange versus Red, but the project in general – which we think is tremendously destructive, too expensive, and just doesn’t provide the level of transportation benefit to match up with the cost,” Hunter said.
The leader of a business group that supports the 540 Outer Loop project praised DOT’s announcement Wednesday and said he believed the road would be a time saver for many drivers.
“Clearly it would depend on where you’re coming from and where you’re going,” said Joe Milazzo II of the Regional Transportation Alliance. “I would think if you were anywhere near the center of that corridor, the time savings would be remarkable – because the alternative to 540 would be Ten Ten Road, which is just two lanes.”
Court challenges to DOT
The Southern Environmental Law Center has emerged in recent years as a formidable antagonist for DOT in court fights over big highway projects. The two sides now are fighting in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over issues that have delayed construction of a toll road in Union County and might have helped kill a toll road proposed in Gaston County.
For five years, SELC lawsuits stalled construction on a replacement for the deteriorating Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks, now scheduled to start next month. Hunter said it was too early to say whether the group will file a lawsuit to stop the 540 project.
DOT is fighting Map Act lawsuits from landowners in the Orange Route corridor. They argue that they should have been compensated when the state restricted their ability to develop their property.
“Basically, we’re paying taxes on land that NCDOT owns,” David Arnold, one of the Orange Route plaintiffs, said Wednesday.
The N.C. Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 16 in a Map Act case involving a Forsyth County freeway project.
Reporter Jonathan Alexander contributed.
DOT’s choice of colors
The Orange-Green-Mint route
Length, Holly Springs to Garner to Knightdale: 28.4 miles
Estimated cost for land, construction and environmental mitigation: $2.18 billion
Land required: 1,823 acres in 741 parcels
Relocations: 271 homes and 10 businesses, farms and nonprofit organizations
Wetlands affected: 74.3 acres
Timetable to start construction:
▪ First section 2018 – N.C. 55 at Holly Springs to U.S. 401 at Wake Tech
▪ Second section 2024 – U.S. 401 to I-40 at Garner
▪ Third section unscheduled – I-40 to I-495 at Knightdale
For more information, see the project website: ncdot.gov/complete540.