Groundbreaking settlement agreement reached on Raleigh-area toll highway

Much of the area southwest of Raleigh has yet to be developed, meaning there are still a number of intact streams and other key habitats in the area proposed for a toll highway. (© Cavan Images)

SELC announced today that it signed a historic settlement with the North Carolina Department of Transportation on behalf of its clients Clean Air Carolina, Sound Rivers, and the Center for Biological Diversity. The deal settles legal claims filed by the groups in federal and state court concerning a highway project in the Raleigh area.

“This unprecedented agreement will be a game-changer for many of the most important environmental issues in our state,” said Senior Attorney Kym Hunter. “Not only does the agreement place the Department of Transportation on a new path towards combatting climate change, but it also sets in place critical protections for the Neuse River watershed, preserves beautiful open space in Wake County, and provides a lifeline for some of the state’s rarest and most endangered aquatic species.”

The magnitude of the settlement is unparalleled in North Carolina history and includes wide-ranging environmental protections for climate, air quality, water resources, and species preservation in the Triangle and beyond. The settlement is in response to a long list of concerns that came to light as the state advanced an expensive toll road with significant impacts along its route south of Raleigh, including to wetlands and other waterways.

"Nationwide transportation contributes more to climate change than any other sector,” notes June Blotnick, executive director of Clean Air Carolina. “This groundbreaking settlement has far-reaching impacts that go way beyond the scope of this particular project. The protections and policies we’ve agreed to will help reduce emissions driving climate change from all future state-funded transportation projects in North Carolina.

An overview of the key settlement agreements is below.

  • Climate change and air quality: The agreement requires NCDOT to:
    • take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from construction equipment,
    • conduct greenhouse gas analyses as part of major project studies in North Carolina, and
    • commission a report to discover strategies & tools to reduce vehicle-miles-traveled and vehicular emissions across the state. NCDOT will then report on these findings and work with local governments to reduce emissions.

In addition, the land preservation commitments discussed below, and ongoing conversations between SELC and the Wake County Commissioners, will help ensure that sprawl and associated greenhouse gas emissions will be limited.  

The protections and policies we’ve agreed to will help reduce emissions driving climate change from all future state-funded transportation projects in North Carolina.”

—June Blotnick, Executive Director Clean Air Carolina

  • Water Quality: The agreement will double the amount of stream mitigation provided to offset impacts for the project—adding an additional 47,000 linear feet of mitigation. The agreement also charges NCDOT to develop new and improved stormwater design guidelines, and pilots a new strategy for assessing stormwater impacts with financial incentives to ensure optimal hydrology. The agreement also includes funding for stormwater management and control programs.
  • Land Preservation: The settlement sets aside funding to buy high quality habitat that will be set aside and protected in perpetuity. Support is also included for Wake County’s Open Space Program, setting aside funds to assist in the county’s goals to preserve open space for the benefit of the county’s communities and natural resources. In addition, NCDOT commits to retaining much of the land it will purchase as part of the highway construction process and leaving that land undeveloped.
  • Community: The settlement requires NCDOT to make specific commitments to support increased public transit by guaranteeing that all future High-Occupancy-Toll lanes will include free access for public transit, and setting up a partnership to help the regional transit provider, GoTriangle, fund routes on the 540 highway.
  • Species preservation: Land preservation and stream mitigation efforts will significantly assist the preservation of some of North Carolina’s most precious wildlife. In addition, the settlement commits NCDOT to partner with other agencies and North Carolina State University to support numerous research projects for some sites that are home to North Carolina’s most imperiled aquatic biodiversity, including wildlife currently on the brink of extinction. The settlement also funds a species propogation facility at NC State for an additional 5 years.

“The settlement agreement puts in place key protections for the Neuse River watershed—doubling the amount of stream mitigation that will be provided, and setting in motion data collection efforts that will further enhance clean water protections in Wake County,” said Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr. “The North Carolina Department of Transportation now has a blueprint of how to better protect other water resources throughout the state, which they can use moving forward for other projects.”

Perrin de Jong, a staff attorney for the Center of Biological Diversity, also weighed in.

"North Carolina’s waterways are home to an incredible storehouse of aquatic biodiversity that lives under the increasing threat of extinction due to expanding factory farms, development and logging,” he said. “This agreement enacts the first major steps in turning the tide for our state’s imperiled aquatic species, giving them a shot at survival and making way for the recovery of our unique native wildlife.”

In signing the settlement, the groups have agreed to drop their legal claims in federal and state court. None of the conservation groups or SELC will receive any funding as part of the agreement.

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