More than 25 years after the N.C. Department of Transportation said it would build a highway across southern Wake County, people who live along the route are getting their first up-close look at just where the road will go.
At three public meetings this week, they got to run their fingers over blown-up preliminary plans for the Triangle Expressway, looking for their homes or property among the brightly colored stripes that represent the planned six-lane toll road from Holly Springs to Knightdale. They scoured the maps for familiar landmarks amid the unfamiliar highway interchanges and asked representatives of NCDOT how to interpret what they were seeing.
Some were relieved by what they learned, but others were caught off guard.
“Tonight’s the first night I’ve seen that I’m going to lose my house,” said Ralph Strickland, a retired city of Raleigh employee who said he had been to earlier meetings and followed the project over the years, only to see now that NCDOT plans to take his home and those of his closest neighbors on Bells Lake Road.
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The three meetings were a chance for people to learn about the plans for N.C. 540 and provide some feedback for NCDOT to consider before it turns the project over to contractors who will come up with final designs. The third meeting, at Wake Tech Community College’s South Campus on Thursday evening, was followed by a public hearing.
More than 30 people spoke. Several represented the Regional Transportation Alliance, a group affiliated with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, and local business groups from Morrisville, Zebulon and Johnston County who all said the highway is crucial to the continued economic growth of the region. Their positions were echoed by Fuquay-Varina Commissioner Bill Harris, Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams and Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears, who said he and his town have already benefited from the first leg of N.C. 540 that runs up and down the west side of Wake County.
“I love the toll road,” Sears said. “We can get to places faster than we ever have before.”
But others questioned the benefits when weighed against the costs to the environment and property owners along the route as well as the $2.24 billion to design and build it. Some of them touted an alternative plan called Access2040 proposed by three environmental groups who say the southern leg of N.C. 540 wouldn’t be needed at all if the state widened and extended existing roads in southern Wake County, including N.C. 42, Ten Ten Road and Tryon Road.
“Please, let’s pump the brakes on Complete 540,” said David Shouse of Cary, using the name NCDOT has given the project.
To win approval for the project, NCDOT will have to show that the highway won’t seriously harm two rare species of mussels that live in Swift Creek and its tributaries. The department has pledged $5 million to establish a laboratory for N.C. State University researchers that would operate as a mussel hatchery, raising animals that could be placed in streams in Wake County and beyond.
Some who spoke urged NCDOT to make specific changes or include certain features. Shaun McGrath lives in a section of the Woodcreek development in Holly Springs that will be cut off from the main part of the subdivision by the expressway. He urged the state and the town to maintain a pedestrian connection under the highway so residents would have access to the neighborhood pool and other amenities.
“With construction of N.C. 540, in effect this large, planned development will be split in half,” McGrath said.
Some questioned the fairness of tolls on a loop road that is free on the north side of Wake County, while others complained about the years of uncertainty over where the road would go and when. The Final Environmental Impact Statement, a report that spells out the possible effects of the final 28.4 miles of the Triangle Expressway on the natural and human environment, was released Dec. 22, putting the state on a schedule to begin buying property this summer and starting construction early next year.
The state will have to deal with hundreds of property owners, some like Strickland who will lose their homes and others who will be affected in other ways.
Tom Giuttari won’t lose any property to N.C. 540, but a bridge will carry the highway across a quiet, wooded wetland behind his house in the Turner Farms subdivision. Giuttari has hired a lawyer to try to make sure NCDOT does all it can to mitigate the noise from the highway.
“It’s beautiful back there now. You can hear the creek running,” he said. “Now I’m going to trade it for ‘babump, babump, babump’ ” of cars going over the bridge joints.
NCDOT will continue accepting public feedback on the Triangle Expressway through March 23. They can be sent via email to email@example.com, by mail to 1598 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N.C., 27699-1598, or on the website ncdot.publicinput.com/complete_540. For more information about the project, including a link to the full Final Environmental Impact Statement, go to www.ncdot.gov/projects/complete540/.