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Feds approve route for NC 540 across southern Wake. Will mussels still stand in its way?

Here’s how those I-540 ramp meters work and how to navigate them

NCDOT installed the lights on the westbound I-540 on-ramps at Leesville, Creedmoor, Six Forks and Falls of Neuse roads. Sensors in the pavement detect when traffic on the ramps gets heavy, turning on lights that alternate between green and red.
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NCDOT installed the lights on the westbound I-540 on-ramps at Leesville, Creedmoor, Six Forks and Falls of Neuse roads. Sensors in the pavement detect when traffic on the ramps gets heavy, turning on lights that alternate between green and red.

The federal government has given its final blessing to the state's plans to build a 28.4-mile toll road across southern Wake County and finish the 540 loop around Raleigh.

The decision by the Federal Highway Administration means the N.C. Department of Transportation can now seek environmental and other permits to complete the Triangle Expressway from Holly Springs to Knightdale. The six-lane $2.24 billion highway would intersect Interstate 40 south of Garner and give drivers an alternative route to and from Research Triangle Park.

The completion of N.C. 540 has been in the works since the early 1990s. The project has the support of local governments in Wake and Johnston counties and local chambers of commerce. The Regional Transportation Alliance, a group affiliated with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which plans transportation on behalf of local governments in the region, both say finishing the highway should be the region's top transportation priority.

But the highway still faces opposition from three environmental groups who last month filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the project. The suit, filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of two other groups, claims the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service broke the law when it concluded that the highway would not threaten the existence of two endangered species of mussels that live in a creek the road would cross. In April, the agency issued an opinion that concluded building the highway would have little effect on the dwarf wedgemussel and yellow lance mussel, as long as NCDOT and its contractors take care not to harm Swift Creek during construction.

Kym Hunter, an attorney for the law center, said they will likely amend their lawsuit to include claims against NCDOT and the Federal Highway Administration.

“We are extremely disappointed that NCDOT continues to push forward this wasteful $2.2 billion boondoggle, rather than take the time to look at less expensive, and less destructive alternative options," Hunter said in a statement. "We ... intend to hold NCDOT accountable for any legal violations in court, on behalf of our clients.”

The endangered dwarf wedge, found in small numbers in the Swift Creek watershed south of Garner, is one of two mussels that have cast a large shadow over the $2.2 billion final leg of the 540 loop around Raleigh.

The endangered dwarf wedgemussel was the reason NCDOT considered an alternative path for the Triangle Expressway known as the Red Route, which would have largely avoided the mussels while plowing through subdivisions, businesses and churches in Garner.

Instead, NCDOT consulted the Fish and Wildlife Service on ways it could minimize the highway’s impact on the mussels, including steps to prevent sediment from washing into the creek during construction and to eliminate runoff from the highway going directly into the water. NCDOT also pledged $5 million to equip and operate a laboratory to breed and raise mussels to be introduced into Swift Creek and elsewhere in the region.

The plans to protect the mussels were included in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, a report released in December that spells out the possible effects of the highway on the natural and human environment. The Federal Highway Administration approved the report this week with what is known as a Record of Decision that allows the project to go forward.

NCDOT and the N.C. Turnpike Authority, which will operate the highway, plan to begin awarding construction contracts this summer and hope construction can begin early next year. They expect the project’s first phase, from N.C. 55 in Holly Springs to I-40, to open in 2023.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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