The legal challenges to finishing N.C. 540 across southern Wake County continue to grow

The final legs of N.C. 540, the Triangle Expressway, would stretch 28.4 miles from Holly Springs to Knightdale and cross Swift Creek.
The final legs of N.C. 540, the Triangle Expressway, would stretch 28.4 miles from Holly Springs to Knightdale and cross Swift Creek. Courtesy of NCDOT

Environmental groups are challenging a state agency’s approval of the N.C. 540 highway across southern Wake County, opening up a new front in their effort to stop the project.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a petition Thursday objecting to the N.C. Division of Water Resources’ decision to issue a water quality permit for the six-lane toll road, which would stretch more than 28 miles from Holly Springs to Knightdale. The law center, working on behalf of three environmental groups, has already filed several claims in federal court against other state and federal agencies challenging their roles in approving the project.

The Federal Highway Administration gave its final blessing for the route of the $2.24 billion highway across southern Wake County last June. Last fall, the state Board of Transportation approved a construction contract worth $314.5 million for the first 8.6-mile leg of the project, between U.S. 401 and I-40.

The environmental groups say that completing N.C. 540 will unnecessarily destroy streams and wetlands along its path and threaten two endangered species of freshwater mussels. In their petition, they say the Division of Water Resources failed to show that the highway meets a “demonstrated public need” or that the N.C. Department of Transportation has minimized its potential effects on streams and wetlands.

“The toll highway will result in devastating impacts to the natural and human environment,” Kym Hunter, an attorney for the law center, said in a statement. “And we are disappointed to see what amounts to a rubber stamp approval of a project that deserves much greater scrutiny.”

The state began planning to finish the loop road across southern Wake County in the early 1990s. It would be an extension of the Triangle Expressway, the toll road that runs from Research Triangle Park south to Holly Springs and is operated by the N.C. Turnpike Authority. The state aims to have the road open between Holly Springs and I-40 by Jan. 1, 2024.

Local governments and chambers of commerce in Wake and Johnston counties have endorsed the project; 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.

Construction could start as soon as the end of this year, said Carly Olexik, spokeswoman for the N.C. Turnpike Authority. Olexik declined to comment on the petition filed Thursday.

“While we cannot speak specifically about active litigation, NCDOT and the N.C. Turnpike Authority are continuing to work toward delivering the project as requested by the local communities, while balancing the protection and conservation of our environment and natural resources,” she said in a statement.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the petition on behalf of Clean Air Carolina, Sound Rivers and the Center for Biological Diversity. They said they have repeatedly urged Gov. Roy Cooper and his Secretary of Transportation, Jim Trogdon, to consider alternatives that would be less expensive and less damaging, including their own proposal they call Access2040.

“We are disappointed in the Cooper administration for approving a project with such enormous consequences for wetlands and water quality in Southern Wake County,” Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr said in a statement. “The Division of Water Resources is abandoning its duty to protect water resources with this approval of what would be one of the state’s most destructive highway projects.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.