Op-Ed

Completing the 540 loop around Raleigh will bring pollution and sprawl

Responding to a dereliction of duty by our current President, last September Gov. Roy Cooper affirmed North Carolina’s commitment to combat climate change by pledging to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to meet the targets of the Paris climate accord.

Cooper’s pledge has been more than just mere words. Last summer he signed into law a bill that is expected to double North Carolina’s solar generation over the next four years, and he has been strongly supportive of investments in wind energy. More recently, the Cooper administration has come out strongly in opposition to offshore drilling off North Carolina’s coast. These are all tremendous actions that should be applauded.

The Cooper Administration has fallen short, however, when it comes to transportation policy. Nationwide the transportation sector is now the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. While there has been much focus on cleaning up smokestacks, increasing energy efficiency in our homes and investing in clean renewable energy sources, far less attention has been paid to the climate-changing gases that come spewing out of our tailpipes every day.

In North Carolina this blindness has been particularly acute. There has been almost no talk within the N.C. Department of Transportation about how it can do its part to help mitigate climate change. Public transportation and bike and pedestrian modes are still massively underfunded and the department continues to pursue thousands of miles of new highways with little regard to their impact on growth patterns and increased emissions.

Nowhere is this problem more striking than with the Cooper Administration’s dogged determination to accelerate the completion of the 540 loop around Raleigh. This $2.2 billion project would be the most expensive highway in North Carolina’s history and is precisely the wrong solution for an administration focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The project was first dreamed up in 1968 when the transportation fashion was to build urban loops around major cities. The result of this approach is always the same: growth that sprawls out into the suburbs and roads that quickly fill up with new congestion. In other words: long aggravating commutes, dirty air and the paving of wetlands, farms and all that makes our state special.

The extension of the 540 loop would be no different. NCDOT’s figures show that the only commuters that would really benefit from the road would be those in far eastern Wake and Johnston Counties traveling the 30 miles to RTP. Is this the type of travel – with the resulting pollution – that our state really wants to promote?

Much has changed since the Complete 540 project was first imagined 50 years ago. The young, diverse workforce Triangle employers seek to attract is not interested in suburban living and long commutes. As Amazon considers whether Raleigh will be its next headquarters, the company has been clear that it is interested in a city with a vibrant downtown, sidewalks and bike paths and a strong connected public transit system that will serve the headquarters.

There is a lot at stake. With the proposal to extend 540 we are setting the stage for the type of city – and state – that we want to be. Will we adhere to the outdated ideas of the past, or are we brave enough to look to the future and do things differently? Can this administration take a bold stance and take a fresh look at alternative options such as upgrades to the existing highway system, renewed investments in mass transit and smart land use planning? Or will we let other, smarter cities lead the way forward, taking Amazon, Apple and other large employers with them?

The public has a right, and indeed a duty to weigh in. We were saddened to discover, as reported in The News & Observer, that the NCDOT may not take its duties to engage the public entirely seriously – Cooper might also take time to consider his promises about transparency.

But we know our governor can do better. NCDOT is seeking comments on the proposed $2.2 billion expansion of 540 until Feb. 1, 2018. We encourage you to share your thoughts about the project with the NCDOT. Let’s join together to urge Governor Cooper to take a time out and consider if the Complete 540 project really serves North Carolina’s long-term best interests and the state’s commitment to leading on climate change, or whether this expensive, destructive project should be confined to the past.

June Blotnick is the Executive Director of Clean Air Carolina.

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