A Toll Road to Sprawl
Low-cost alternatives to Monroe Bypass would help local drivers, report finds
Improvements to Highway 74 in Union County that cost less and focus benefits on local drivers are feasible and merit further study according to an engineering firm report released today by the Southern Environmental Law Center. Read more in the press release.
Traffic on US 74 east of Charlotte is bad, its many stoplights and strip development making it one of the worst corridors in the region. It's clear that something needs to be done, but paving over hundreds of acres of woods and fields to build a 20-mile toll road at a cost of more than $800 million is not the answer.
Better solutions exist that are fiscally responsible and would protect the region's air and water quality, but the NC Department of Transportation and local officials want to plow ahead with the Monroe Bypass.
In 2012, a court agreed with SELC that federal and state agencies illegally failed to consider and disclose to the public the potential sprawl-inducing impacts of the 20-mile highway bypass near Charlotte.
Bypass would saddle taxpayers with decades of debt
The proposed highway would run parallel to US 74, bypass the city of Monroe and connect to the I-485 beltway southeast of Charlotte. NCDOT and the North Carolina Turnpike Authority are touting it as a toll road. Local commuters would have to pay as much as $1,300 a year to use the highway, yet that revenue is projected to cover less than half of the project's $808 million cost. To make up the difference, taxpayers statewide might end up forking out $24 million a year for up to 40 years.
That's funding that can't be spent on critically needed transportation projects in the Charlotte region or elsewhere. North Carolina already has $120 billion in long-term transportation needs, and only half that in identified funding. We should not be mortgaging our transportation future by issuing bonds for this massive, unnecessary project.
NCDOT botched environmental study for bypass
SELC has opposed this project for years due to the unacceptable impact on water quality and wildlife habitat in the Yadkin River watershed and little or no benefit to local communities. Further, the Monroe Bypass would lure sprawl development of subdivisions and strip malls, which would increase traffic in the corridor, and add to tailpipe pollution in greater Charlotte, which already fails to meet federal air quality standards for protecting public health.
SELC's lawsuit identifies numerous flaws in the state's assessment of environmental impacts from the bypass:
- The agency's analysis for the "no build" option assumes the highway already exists, nonsensically concluding that the project would have virtually no impact on subsequent development.
- The study vastly overstates the traffic levels that would result along US 74 if the toll road were not built.
- NCDOT failed completely to analyze alternatives to solving traffic in the US 74 corridor, again, in violation of federal law.
Better solutions for solving US 74 traffic
The good news is that there are less destructive, less costly ways to undo traffic congestion in the US 74 corridor. Upgrades to local road networks and improvements to the existing US 74 would meet traffic needs and enhance efficiency in the corridor. According to NCDOT's own report in 2007 (click here for a pdf ), improving existing roads and connections would fix all but one of the traffic bottlenecks, at an approximate cost of just $13.3 million. Incredibly, the agency ignored its own findings in the final environmental study, leaving tens of thousands of US 74 users stuck in traffic even after the tollway is built.
The Monroe project is one of a half dozen proposals in the state's transportation planning pipeline that continue the outdated vision of building a massive system of expensive, sprawling beltways and bypasses throughout North Carolina. Getting the study right, rather than rubber-stamping the Turnpike Authority's narrow perspective on available alternatives and their impacts, is critical to the state's transportation future.