Now that the state Department of Transportation has spent six years considering the widely reviled Red Route through Garner, environmental regulators appear ready at last to accept DOT’s long-preferred path for extending a six-lane toll road across southern Wake County: the Orange Route.
DOT said Thursday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies have expressed no major concerns about its choice, announced in February, for the 30-mile path that will take the 540 Outer Loop east from Holly Springs to Interstate 40 south of Garner, and then north to Knightdale.
Construction could start in early 2018 on the first leg of the project. It is planned as an extension of the Triangle Expressway toll road in western Wake, and it will complete the 540 Outer Loop.
“We feel like we’re on a pretty good footing now on being able to obtain the necessary permits,” Brian Yamamoto, a DOT engineer overseeing the project, said Thursday.
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Thursday’s announcement means the Orange Route has risen in status from the “recommended” to the “preferred” alternative on the long bureaucratic ladder of approval. Still ahead are decisions on how to soften the environmental damage that will come when the highway tramples sensitive wetlands south of Garner and muddies the habitat of an endangered stream creature, the dwarf wedgemussel.
Environmental regulators cited those worries in 2010 when DOT sought approval to build on what later was called the Orange Route. Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said they could not evaluate the proposal unless DOT offered other possible routes for comparison, including alternatives that would steer clear of wetlands and mussel habitat.
Road planners came back with numerous possible paths on a multicolor map. The Red Route would have plowed through Garner – bulldozing subdivisions, parks and churches – while causing the least harm to the natural environment. The legislature passed a law banning construction on the Red Route, and later repealed it – but it was clear that state and local political sentiment would never allow it anyway.
The Orange Route is a 1,000-foot-wide swath DOT marked on planning maps in the 1990s, when it hoped to start construction much sooner on the southern leg of the 540 Outer Loop. Once the new toll road reaches I-40 south of Garner, it would turn north through eastern Wake on paths known as the Green and Mint routes.
A Chapel Hill-based attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center said the Orange Route would cause “irreversible damage to the mussel population” and damage more than 70 acres of wetlands.
“We’re very disappointed about this choice and think it’s an illegal choice that won’t be able to be legally permitted,” attorney Kym Hunter said. The law group also is pressing questions about DOT’s proposed funding for the 540 project, which would require tax dollars to augment toll revenues.
Fish and Wildlife officials could not be reached for comment. Yamamoto said years of study have put the 540 project on solid footing with environmental regulators.
“Now that all of that information has been vetted through our agency partners, there are no issues of concern that are major, any more, with the preferred route,” Yamamoto said. “They seem to be ready to roll up their sleeves to work with us on minimizing the impacts.”