One by one, environmentalists, elected officials, residents who live along the proposed alternate routes to N.C. 540, and others who just wanted to share their thoughts, walked to podium to weigh in on which route should be picked and why.
The comments will be taken into consideration when the state Department of Transportation makes its final decision among the proposed 17 alternate routes to the final leg of the 540 Outer Loop that spans southeastern Wake County.
About 300 people attended Wednesday’s public hearing at Wake Tech Community College’s main campus. It was the first chance the public was able to make verbal comments since N.C. DOT released its draft of the environmental impact statement.
The opinions of the speakers varied, but there was no doubt the majority favor the Orange Route as it passes through their respective towns.
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The Orange Route was initially proposed in 1995, and the corridor it sits on has been protected for many years, limiting the growth along it. It spans south of Garner all the way north of Holly Springs and would connect to the western part of the county.
But studies showed the Orange Route passes through wetlands and the habitat of the federally protected endangered Dwarf wedgemussel species. So DOT was force to draw alternate routes that may have less of an impact on environmental factors.
The environmental impact draft study has since confirmed all of that.
However, other routes such as the Red Route that goes through Garner, and the blue and purple routes, which go through areas planned for future growth in Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs have been strongly opposed. Those routes would displace the most people.
“I beg you to take into consideration the human impact of the Red Route,” Senator Chad Barefoot said. “The reason the Red Route has less environmental impact is because it’s full of people.”
He voiced support for the Orange Route and disapproval for the Red, Blue and Purple routes.
Fuquay-Varina Mayor John Byrne also supported the Orange Route.
“We are a protected species,” Byrne said. “The human beings.”
Walter Simpkins, has lived along the Orange Route since before it was proposed, said he was in favor of the Orange Route. He said he wants it to be moved forward.
“I have been held prisoner since December of 1990,” Simpkins said. “December of 1990 was when I attended the first meeting here at Wake Tech. My question to DOT is why did they wait 20 years to get this environmental study done.”
There were some that opposed the Orange Route.
Matthew Star, who works as a water conservationist, urged N.C. DOT to be more mindful of the environmental impacts of the Orange Route on wetlands.
“I want to see a vibrant North Carolina and Garner,” Star said. “But I don’t want to see it done at a great cost to destroying our water quality. All the options are very destructive and have extremely low costs for a correspondingly low benefit.”
Star and a few others said they would like DOT to come up with more alternatives.
“We believe N.C. DOT is providing you with a false choice,” Kym Hunter, an attorney speaking on behalf of different environmental groups, said. “We have heard a lot today about people versus mussels. Either you have to devastate a community or destroy the natural environment. We urge you to reject this false choice and look for other better solutions.”
She asked about the 270 homes the Orange Route would displace. However, it uproots the fewest amount of people as compared to combinations of other routes.
Tom Guy and his wife, who live in Turner Farms, would be one of those families displaced among the Orange Route. He said when he moved to Turner Farms a few years ago, he wasn’t aware that the Orange Route would go through his neighborhood. He said he and his wife planned for it to be their final home.
“Originally we were told the route was going to go further to the southeast,” Guy said. “I ask the Orange Route be moved or looked at east of 50, and the engineers look at moving it 200 to 300 yards to the southeast which will not impact Turner Farms at all other than the fact that we will need to add noise barriers.”
A few people opposed making N.C. 540 a toll road. Some viewed it as a tax they did not want and said the current toll roads in the Triangle are not being used.
The public comment period ends Jan. 8. All comments on or before Jan. 8 will be considered and discussed. The public can email or call N.C. DOT to voice their opinions.
N.C. DOT will then talk with its environmental agency partners and will take that into consideration before making its final recommendation in the spring.