Monroe Bypass near Charlotte, NC
Conservation groups file appeal of Monroe Bypass case More »
Conservation groups have filed an appeal in federal court saying that last week’s ruling by a district court judge failed to properly scrutinize the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s review of the $838 million Monroe Bypass. SELC filed the appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on behalf of Clean Air Carolina, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and the Yadkin Riverkeeper.
The groups maintain that the N.C. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration violated federal law when they ignored a decade of changes along the U.S. 74 highway corridor in Union County that have made alternative solutions, such as upgrades to the local road network, far more efficient and cost-effective solutions than the expensive Bypass.
“We’re hopeful that, after a full review of the record, the Court of Appeals will conclude that NCDOT failed to conduct the review of a full range of more efficient and less costly alternative solutions that federal law requires,” said Attorney Kym Hunter.
Working with expert transportation planners, NCDOT’s own data, and local Union County communities, the conservation groups identified a number of specific lower-cost improvements that would have a swift and direct impact on relieving congestion along the existing highway and improving driver safety. But when these solutions were presented to NCDOT they were ignored.
“Spending over $800 million on a new Bypass just doesn’t make sense anymore,” said June Blotnick, Executive Director of Clean Air Carolina. “NCDOT’s own data show that taking the toll road would save travelers only 8 to 12 minutes, making taxpayers spend $100 million for every minute of time saved. NCDOT has a duty to taxpayers and responsibility under federal law to properly investigate less expensive solutions that will provide real benefits for Union County.”
Earlier this year, Union County residents visited the state legislature to urge that targeted low-cost solutions be explored in place of the Bypass. These residents want solutions that would actually improve travel for local drivers in Union County — rather than allowing those able to pay a toll to entirely bypass the county and its businesses. Five Union County municipalities have passed resolutions urging alternative solutions.
But in the budget released yesterday by the legislature hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars remain earmarked to be spent specifically on the unneeded $838 million Monroe Bypass over the next forty years. The Bypass also remains as the only un-built transportation project exempted from the state’s new data-drive scoring process.
The ruling by the federal court on the Monroe Bypass last week was handed down alongside another ruling in which the same judge found that NCDOT violated federal law in its review of another toll highway project, the Garden Parkway. NCDOT has not yet said whether it will appeal that ruling.
A Toll Road to Sprawl
Traffic on US 74 east of Charlotte, N.C., is bad, and it's clear that something needs to be done. But paving over hundreds of acres of woods and century-old farms to build a 20-mile toll road at a cost of almost $900 million is not the answer.
Better solutions exist that are fiscally responsible and would protect the region's air and water quality, but the North Carolina Department of Transportation and local officials want to plow ahead with the $900 million Monroe Bypass.
In 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed with the Southern Environmental Law Center 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 a third of the project's $898 million cost. To make up the difference, taxpayers statewide will be required to fork 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 has billions of dollars of transportation needs and a severe shortfall in funding. Spending our scarce transportation resources on an expensive, unnecessary project makes no sense when better, more affordable solutions exist.
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 family health.
SELC has identified numerous flaws in the state's newest assessment of environmental impacts from the bypass:
- The study ignores the dramatic results of recent small scale improvements to US 74 and the potential for future similar low-cost solutions to improve traffic flow.
- The study vastly overstates the traffic levels that would result along US 74 if the toll road were not built and, thus, manufactures a need for the road.
- The study use pre-recession data to forecast growth in Union County and vastly overstates levels of development that are likely to occur.
Better solutions for solving US 74 traffic
The good news is that there are less destructive, less costly ways to address traffic congestion in the US 74 corridor. Upgrades to local road networks and improvements to the existing US 74 are starting to 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. After SELC brought attention to this study in 2010, some of the suggested solutions have been implemented, but many more remain that could benefit Union County drivers and local communities if implemented.
The Monroe project is one of a half dozen proposals in the state's transportation planning pipeline that continue an outdated vision of building a massive system of expensive, sprawling beltways and bypasses throughout North Carolina, instead of alternatives and innovative transit technology. 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.
Conservation Groups File Appeal of Monroe Bypass Case
Statement on Two Court Decisions Regarding the Proposed Garden Parkway and Monroe Bypass by Kym Hunter, Attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center
Yadkin Riverkeeper challenges water quality permit for the $850 million Bypass; calls on N.C. General Assembly to look at cheaper alternatives
After Contractor’s Guilty Plea Groups Call on NCDOT to Terminate Bypass Contract
Still No Honest Account of $850 Million Monroe Bypass Purpose & Impact
Southern Environmental Law Center Urges Honest Review of Costly Monroe Bypass
Costly, Destructive Monroe Bypass Gets Federal Approval to Move Forward
New North Carolina Transportation Funding System
Transportation Expert Says DOT's Analysis Insufficient to Support Building $900 Million Monroe Bypass
Low-cost alternatives to Monroe Bypass would help local drivers, report finds