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Road Worrier: 540 Loop project offers a choice of colors

Options for completing the 540 Outer Loop.
Options for completing the 540 Outer Loop.

The reviled Red Route has not been ruled out. The more popular Orange Route is still in the running, too, as the state Department of Transportation agonizes over how and where to finish the 540 Outer Loop in southern and eastern Wake County.

And there are other colors to contend with. When DOT engineers picked colors for their alternatives map, they evoked the palette of Chapel Hill fashion designer Alexander Julian: Lilac, Mint and Teal!

No issues are settled and no alternatives are eliminated in the weighty Draft Environmental Impact Statement released last week, for two months of public scrutiny and comment. As it turns out, each choice poses problems.

But hey, we need to work this out. The Triangle needs to see Raleigh’s Outer Loop completed.

Even with the good mass transit system that Wake County aims to build in the next 25 years, even with the smart new urbanites who dig walking to work – and even though it will be a toll road – a finished 540 can be a boon to commerce, travel and life in this region.

Just as the East End Connector will unclog Bull City streets by completing a north-south Durham bypass, 540 should liberate Raleigh from all the truckers and commuters who are only passing through.

Ground-breaking is at least three years away. But the first key decisions are expected next year. Moving us in that direction, the new environmental study weighs effects on human communities along with 540’s impact on wildlife and water quality.

There is evidence here that might ultimately help Garner residents eradicate the Red Route. But the color-coded segments are linked in 17 possible combinations that could form a complete route from Holly Springs to Knightdale, and it’s hard to gauge the impact of a single color section by itself. (DOT, you could have made this easier for us.)

The Red Route could be the most calamitous highway path North Carolina has considered since the early 1970s, when DOT bulldozed Durham’s historic Hayti community to build a freeway.

As the freeway did in Durham, the Red Route would chop Garner in half – in this case separating lower-income areas to the north from higher-income areas to the south.

Besides wrecking about 200 more homes than some other options, a Red 540 would smash parks, churches and businesses in Garner. No wonder local governments have united to oppose the Red Route, and our legislature tried a few years ago to outlaw it.

DOT agreed to consider the Red Route because it avoids serious environmental challenges. Its long-preferred Orange Route would push 540 south of Garner, stomping through acres of wetlands and polluting streams that nurture an endangered creature, the dwarf wedgemussel.

A Lilac path upstream from the Orange Route would reduce harm to mussels and wetlands. But the Lilac Route also would affect Raleigh’s water treatment plant and, like the Red Route, knock out neighborhoods with lots of houses.

What about the Blue-and-Purple combination, farther south and west of the Orange Route? Like the Red Route, this line rolls through residential neighborhoods established years ago and growing today. In fact, if 540 veers south from Holly Springs toward Fuquay-Varina through Blue-Purple territory, it will wipe out even more homes than in Garner.

All this angst only gets us through south Wake, from Holly Springs to Garner, where DOT plans to build 540 in two phases, starting in 2018. The unscheduled final phase will come when 540 moves east of Interstate 40 and turns north toward completion at Knightdale.

This is uncharted territory. DOT has never marked a preferred path for the eastern leg of 540. The eastern options all involve tradeoffs:

▪ Green: Bisects the Randleigh Farm property being developed for public use. It threatens one or more of several communications towers important for aviation, cellphones and emergency warning systems.

▪ Mint: Diverges from a short section of the Green Route to reduce the Randleigh impact.

▪ Brown: Farther east, it avoids Randleigh and the communication towers, and that’s good. But it runs through a wastewater treatment area, a police training center and the Clemmons Educational State Forest. Not good.

▪ Tan: Dodges some of the Green-Mint problems but messes up more residential neighborhoods.

▪ Teal: Avoids some Green and Brown problems but plows into others.

The Red-Orange-Lilac-Blue-Purple questions may be settled by 2017, but those other colors will be troubling us for some years to come.

What’s next for 540 Outer Loop

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement, with maps and supporting documents, is available for public review online and at state and local government offices and libraries.

It will be the subject of public meetings and hearings at three Raleigh and Holly Springs locations Dec. 7, 8 and 9. The online documents can be found at ncdot.gov/complete540, along with details about the meetings and options for submitting public comment.

The state Department of Transportation will accept comments until Jan. 8 and select its preferred alternative route sometime in the spring of 2016. More review and a Final Environmental Impact Statement will follow.

Construction of the 27-mile project will be scheduled in three phases. The first, extending the 540 Outer Loop from N.C. 55 at Holly Springs to U.S. 401 near Wake Tech, is tentatively scheduled to start construction in 2018.

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