540 Completion Project Under Fire

From Indy Week...

A few weeks back, there was a kerfuffle over the final environmental impact statement for the the completion of the N.C. 540 beltway around southern Wake County. NCDOT officials, environmental groups said, had misled them about the timeframe for the public comment period. The NCDOT’s chicanery aside, it seemed a relatively minor quibble, in the sense that the wheels of bureaucracy—this project, after all, has been in the works for twenty-some years—are unlikely to be slowed by environmental groups’ complaints. But it also underlined the reality that lawsuits over the beltway extension are almost certainly coming.

The biggest beefs are that the project would bulldoze 69.5 acres of wetlands, force out hundreds of homes and businesses, and harm two endangered species of freshwater mussels. More than these specific issues, though, environmentalists worry that this is yet another example of the state and county encouraging suburban sprawl.

On Friday, the environmental groups released their own plan, called Access2040: “The plan involves widening three existing east-west roads across southern Wake–N.C. 42, Ten-Ten Road and Tryon Road–and building new roads to connect them to existing highways on either end. It also involves converting U.S. 64 into a six-lane freeway between U.S. 1 and N.C. 55 in Cary and Apex and converting two intersections along N.C. 55 near Holly Springs into interchanges. Most of the changes are ones that local transportation planners already hope to complete by 2040 anyway. The additional proposals, including several road extensions, would cost about $294 million, which the environmental groups contrast with the $2.2 billion cost of completing the N.C. 540 toll road from Holly Springs to Knightdale.”

“‘NCDOT’s proposed toll road improves travel times for a very few drivers and is actually projected by the department to make congestion on existing highways worse,’ Kym Hunter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. ‘The negligible time-savings cannot justify the multibillion-dollar cost. Importantly, this alternative solution would save time for all drivers in the area, regardless of their ability to pay a toll, and at a much lower overall cost.’”

“The proposed highway has the support of local and county governments in Wake as well as the business community. The Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group associated with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, considers completing the Triangle Expressway the top transportation priority for Wake County and essential to speeding travel and reducing congestion. … [Environmentalists question] the assertion that the road would improve the flow of traffic. They note that NCDOT’s engineering firm concluded last fall that building the road would cause congestion on more existing primary roads in southern Wake County than would not building the road at all.” ...

From my conversations with Wake officials, my sense is that the all-Democratic county commission is acquiescent more than enthusiastic about the beltway. Yes, it will encourage sprawl, but the thing has been planned forever—since the nineties, when far-flung highways were all the rage and before downtowns started to come back to life—business groups have been clamoring to finally get it done, and this is what state and county officials have long believed is necessary. What’s more, they believe this proposed route is better than an alternative, which would have split Garner’s downtown. Sure, I was told, lawsuits are almost a certainty, but that would be the case no matter where the road went.
While the NCDOT says it will review the environmental groups’ plan, the Chamber-funded Raleigh Transportation Alliance is already dismissing it.

From the N&O: “Joe Milazzo, the group’s executive director, reviewed Access2040 and says it falls short of a 70 mph expressway that will serve as a core of the county’s transportation network and create new connections with five other freeways in the county. ‘Not building 540–and thereby jettisoning decades of plans by local, regional, and state governments from both a transportation and land use standpoint–would also result in asking local streets to serve regional travel purposes that they were never intended to perform, which area residents did not sign up for,’ Milazzo wrote in an email.”
— Indy Week
Brent Woodcox