540 could loop around greater Raleigh sooner than expected

The Orange/Green/Mint/Green Route is the preferred route for the final section of the Triangle Expressway toll highway.
The Orange/Green/Mint/Green Route is the preferred route for the final section of the Triangle Expressway toll highway.

Completing the Outer Loop through the southern end of Wake County has cleared an important hurdle with federal approval of an environmental study, state transportation planners announced Friday.

The Federal Highway Administration has approved a final environmental impact statement for the project. Public comment and a series of meetings on the proposed design will take place in the coming months in the Wake County communities affected, followed by a final decision by federal officials.

The study looks at the effects of building a final section of the Triangle Expressway toll highway from the N.C. 55 Bypass in Apex to U.S. 64/U.S. 264 in Knightdale.

“The study of this project has been the No. 1 highway priority for the regional business community for many years now,” Beau Memory, executive director of the N.C. Turnpike Authority, said in an interview Friday. “Now this process can continue eight months ahead of schedule.”

State turnpike officials didn’t expect to receive the approval until the middle of next year. Memory said he thinks community support for the preferred route made the review easier.

Some still opposed

Despite the agencies’ agreement on assessing the impact, some environmental groups remain opposed to the project. Kym Hunter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the project would devastate the area’s natural beauty in exchange for a shorter commute time for those who can afford the toll..

“We are disappointed to see NCDOT rushing ahead with this costly, destructive project which we have long maintained is the wrong solution for Southeastern Wake County, North Carolina taxpayers and our growing state’s commitment to smart, planned development,” Hunter said in an emailed statement. “... It’s time to go back to the drawing board and invest in smart, forward-thinking multimodal solutions that serve everyone in Southeastern Wake County and put this dinosaur to rest.”

The $2.2 billion project has been controversial over the years. In 2010, environmental regulators raised concerns about the impact of the highway project on wetlands and mussel habitat.

That led state Department of Transportation officials to develop alternate routes to the one they preferred, which came to be called the Orange Route. One of those options, the Red Route, would have bulldozed Garner subdivisions, parks and churches.

The Red Route offered the maximum environmental protection, but was extremely unpopular with the people who live there. The preferred route – which is technically the Orange/Green/Mint/Green Route if you’re looking at the map – was the focus of the environmental study.

Minimizing damage

Regulatory agencies last year said they would push for expensive measures to minimize environmental harm from the highway project and homebuilding that it might spur. Those kinds of measures are in the 118-page environmental impact study, which DOT posted online Friday afternoon.

Hunter said her initial reaction to the report is that it was rushed and does little to address environmentalists’ concerns. She contends the project as proposed would violate state and federal laws.

But Memory says environmental issues have been addressed.

“We worked hard to minimize any impacts to the environment, both the natural and human environment,” he said.

The 30-mile route will extend the 540 Outer Loop east from Holly Springs to Interstate 40 south of Garner, and then north to Knightdale.

Memory said with final approval the first phase of construction could begin within the next few years and the second phase a few years after that.

The project would link Raleigh to Apex, Cary, Clayton, Garner, Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs. The intention is to ease traffic congestion on southern Wake highways and major roads, and accommodate future growth.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO